We see a lot of articles and hear discussion about accommodating people in public – using the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar measures to ensure that people can ride a bus, use the trains, take an elevator or vertical platform lift (VPL) to ascend and descend in their office building, apartment, hotel or another place of public accommodation, go shopping, visit their local park, and have access to any other activities they like.
Sometimes these accommodations are called aging in place, but this is incorrect. By definition, aging in place can only occur in a home where someone is living. It has been stretched to apply to people who have moved into a nursing home or other type of managed care facility. Technically, they are aging in place when they have left their long-term home, but this is outside the classic definition and original concept of aging in place which is to remain in one’s forever home without needing to move from it.
Since we are talking about people remaining in their chosen long-term home and not needing to move to a retirement or care facility or institution, it should be clear that aging in place as a concept and design strategy only applies to residential settings. People age in place where they live. They don’t age in place at the office – even if they think it does feel like it sometimes.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the workplace cannot be accessible, comfortable, safe, and convenient – the safe attributes we look for and try to achieve in an aging in place design emphasis. People can still enjoy similar design treatments. We just don’t call it aging in place – because it isn’t. It’s accessible design. A large amount of time is spent at the office, business activities engaged in, and the general level of formality or seriousness is different than at home. These are some of the functions that separate an aging in place focus from accessible design in the workplace.
The key differentiation between the two separate, but similar in overall concept, designs is that one leaves their home to go to the workplace for either a set schedule of between eight to ten hours at a time, although this varies with the profession or type of business. The at the end of that workday, one returns to the home base – their residence or sanctuary – and remains until time to return to the office. The home is a much more intimate and personal setting. Necessarily, the office cannot be this.
We know that in the home we want people to have access to the home through a doorway that provides a minimum of thirty-two inches of clear space (so a three-foot or thirty-six inch door is recommended to achieve this), We want all interior doors to be the same or larger, with hinged doors, cased opening, barn doors, sliders, or pocket doors used to achieve this dimension. We design hallways to be at least three-feet wide but prefer them to be much wider – or to be an open floor plan with no hallways at all. We want switches and control to be no higher than four feet from the floor.
In the home, we are working with design guidelines that come from ADA requirements, but following them is voluntary. We can choose to accept some, all, or none of what is suggested unless they happen also to be part of state or local building regulations. Then they would be followed. In this sense, the workplace accommodates more people than the home environment because it has to do so. Building entrances, door widths, sink heights, cubicles, workstations, restrooms, common areas, and vertical access (if any) all must comply with ADA requirements. This makes the workplace accessible, not aging in place.
Remember that an aging in place design solution is individual and specific to the client and their particular home environment. It does not follow a set of rules. It also is budget related. Whereas a commercial entity must comply with ADA or it can’t receive the necessary approvals to open for business, there is no such requirement for residential. Homes must comply with the applicable building codes, and that’s it unless those codes also have regulations on accessibility.
With aging in place, we match the client’s needs, the parameters of the home, and their budget to determine a course of action to create a design that makes their home safer, more comfortable, more accessible, or more convenient for them. Each home and each design engagement is going to be different. In the workplace, except for the cost to install everything (which is based on office or building size), the designs are the same. Then, anyone can use the space. It is not created with any specific person or any particular needs in mind. Rather, it provides accessibility for anyone who might come into that space.