September 2010: Design for a new age

Visualize yourself at home in your senior years. What do you picture? Probably you see a place of comfort and vitality, with views of some golden pond or spaces for beloved hobbies. What you likely don’t imagine (or want to) are lonely or cramped quarters, orthopedic beds and strangers snoring next to you. Assisted living facilities and nursing homes might become necessities for those suffering deteriorating health, but good design can help prevent or at least delay the institutionalizing step. We found three local homes thoughtfully created or adapted to give seniors a chance to age in place—in their very own places—for as long as possible.

Downsizing to a dream house


When associate UVA architecture professor Bill Sherman began designing a home for his octogenarian parents—Jean and Bill Sr.—in 2007, his goals were “self-sufficiency” and “low maintenance.” The elderly couple wanted to downsize from their prior residence on Nantucket, address the likelihood of future physical debilitation with more level living, and be closer to their children and grandchildren. Most importantly, they wanted to immerse themselves in the kind of natural beauty to which they’d grown accustomed, living on an island. 

The ability to commune with nature drove the home’s site selection at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Free Union. Nestled next to the shade of an old oak tree, the house sits on 24 acres with a pond and a dock.  Landscape architect Julie Bargmann of D.I.R.T. Studio designed simple planting beds and a small grassy area around the home, giving Bill Sr. a manageable area to mow and mend, but much of the property was left wooded and wild. A lifelong outdoor lover, Bill Sr.’s favorite place at the new home is a concrete outdoor shower with a bench and planter designed by Alexander Kitchin of Pretty Hard. He rinses off there after his daily nature walks on the property.

Harnessing the energy of that surrounding nature also was of primary importance to the home’s overall concept. A proponent of modern and sustainable building—Sherman designed the progressive South Addition to UVA’s Campbell Hall —he employed advanced energy strategies, including a geothermal heat pump, radiant floor heat and soy-based spray foam insulation. The design also includes high-minded, passive design choices—an overhanging, inverted roof that captures energy and water (in a cistern) and numerous energy-efficient casement windows situated to disperse valley breezes for cross-ventilation. These strategies not only keep energy consumption down, they also help to maintain a consistent ambient temperature for his parents, who with age are growing increasingly sensitive to weather changes and extremes. 

Sherman says, “It’s not about precise units of energy saved. It’s about a way of living connected to nature and natural cycles.”


UVA architecture professor Bill Sherman wanted to design a house for his parents, Jean and Bill Sr., that would be low maintenance and encourage self-sufficiency. Though situated on 24 acres, the Shermans’ Free Union home has only a small area that requires mowing and maintenance. It’s a study in sustainability with features like energy-efficient casement windows. 

The older Shermans definitely are tied into the natural world, but living so rurally and remotely might seem counterintuitive for the aging population. That’s where conventional thinking and design for the elderly is often wrong, however. Sherman, who was active with UVA’s Institute on Aging while he was Associate Dean for Academics, says overly convenient dwellings can be detrimental to the well-being of the elderly, making them deteriorate more quickly: “You can make a house too safe where it becomes a sort of prison and you’re too scared to leave it.”

The home’s main level includes kitchen, dining and living spaces in one room; a master bedroom and bathroom; a small loft office; and an expansive deck overlooking the pond, valley and ridges beyond. Though the Shermans needn’t leave this floor, the 2,700-square-foot home also includes a small flight of stairs down to a walk-out basement with laundry facilities, a guest bedroom, a second bath (which Bill Sr. has adopted as his primary) and a large living area. (Sherman designed the lower level for the possibility of future subdivision into three bedrooms.)

“I like the idea that they are going up and down the stairs. I made them as safe as I could,” says Sherman, referencing their extra width and more moderate steepness than what’s typical.

For now, though, continued mobility is the idea. His parents love to garden, so Sherman constructed beds and a shed several hundred yards away from the house. 

“It would have been too easy if [the garden] was right next to the house.  This gives them a destination,” he says. Should maneuvering outside truly become more difficult, however, Sherman also included elevated window boxes accessible from the kitchen for continued herb gardening. 

“[Downsizing] is always hard, but we were ready,” says Jean. Gesturing to the open expanse of beauty out her windows, she adds, “We don’t feel isolated in the middle of nowhere here.”

Her husband describes the subtle, lovely views the house affords. “With such episodes of beauty,” he says, “I lose any inclination to feel the full weight of years.”

A universal design renovation


Lynne and Don Gardner needed to move into a smaller space where they could age in place and accommodate Don’s declining health. Because of the firm’s interest in universal design—the concept of creating spaces for people of all ages and abilities with a strong emphasis on aesthetics (i.e., making a home not look like a hospital room)—Lynne chose architect Burt Pinnock of BAM Architects in Richmond and the builders at Abrahamse & Company to renovate a tiny brick rancher on Lexington Avenue for her and her husband. 


Lynne and Don Gardner worked with Richmond architect Burt Pinnock to adapt their Lexington Avenue property. Modifications included an open kitchen/living area. The cozy house features two porches, too.

“This was our honeymoon home,” says Gardner of the Lexington Avenue house she and Don purchased as newlyweds in 1962. They lived in it for only a few years, then held onto it as a rental after moving to a larger, three-level home a few blocks away, where they raised their now-grown children. 

When a one-level home with easy access from the street became necessary for Don’s safety, however, Gardner says the small Lexington house with its carved-up, warren-like rooms initially didn’t come to mind: “I never gave it a thought.”

Instead, she scoured town for newer, more age-friendly places that might fit their special needs, but pickings were slim and prices high. Then about a year ago, her son, David, who personally knew of Pinnock and his universal design experience, pointed out the potential of the Lexington pad. 

What Pinnock designed and Abrahamse built for the adapted home was an open kitchen/living area as well as a wrap-around porch and screened-in back porch. They also reconfigured the two bedrooms, added an easy-access laundry area and created two universally designed bathrooms. Both have raised pedestal sinks and elevated toilets and numerous grab bars, cleverly concealed as towel rods. The team widened hallways and doorways and eliminated all thresholds between rooms and from bathroom to shower, to prevent tripping and for easy navigation of a wheelchair, should one become necessary. 

One of the most creatively designed features keeps Don’s in-home dialysis machine and accoutrements easily accessible but out of sight. Before the move and renovation, Don’s medical equipment sat around as an obstruction in their living room.

“We wanted…a special cabinet to house the machine so that when Don’s treatment is finished, we can tuck it into the cabinet and go about our daily life without having to think about dialysis on a constant basis,” says Gardner. “In our other house…the thought of dialysis was always staring us in the face.”

Creating a family compound


Sarah Sargent selected the live-in option when her aging parents needed assistance. Instead of simply moving in with them or vice versa, however, she and her sister, who were both living in Somerset, Virginia, at the time, discovered a new dwelling in town that would work for all of them. In the fall of 2007, they found a mostly level home in the Meadowbrook Heights area, with extra bedrooms for family caretakers and grandchildren staying over and a basement apartment with separate entrance for Sarah to reside in full time.  

In order to be close to her parents as they started to need assistance, Sarah Sargent moved into a 700-square-foot lower apartment in a Meadowbrook Heights rancher that already featured an open floor plan that would accommodate their needs.

The main, ranch-style house, built in 1961, already had the stamp of an architect: a well-designed open floor plan that happens to suit the elderly with physical and other ailments, large windows for garden-gazing and bird watching, and enough space for frequent guests. A few minor renovations were needed, but one of the most important issues was adjusting Sarah’s new living arrangement to suit her needs. 

“When you care for someone, it trammels you in ways. You have to find a way to carve out an existence that’s fulfilling. It’s very important to have your own personal space,” says Sargent. 

Though moving to the 700-square-foot lower apartment was a downsize for her, Sargent, who grew up in New York, says it wasn’t a hardship: “I’ve always liked small. It’s all I know.”

Plus, with her artistic background and design sensibilities—she’s a freelance art critic and former director of the Second Street Gallery—Sargent knew how to maximize the space. She hung almost her entire art collection on the walls of the main living/sleeping area, tiny galley kitchen, sleeper train-like bathroom and former utility/storage closet, which she’d converted to another sitting room. 

She expanded the perception of the apartment’s footprint with lively orange walls and new low-pile, dark brown carpeting, and instead of going Spartan, opted for bold upholstered furniture. That includes a queen-sized pull-out couch flanked by robust table lamps, to anchor the room and mimic the scale of the apartment’s one large window that bathes the main room with natural light. 

Sargent actually has the best of both worlds: a separate, Paris-salon-like sanctuary plus the benefits of a fenced backyard where her boxer roams freely. And she has the peace of mind that comes with living with family in need.




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