Flexible Housing


Building homes to accommodate your needs – today and tomorrow

When you’re in good health and have no problems getting around, it’s hard to think ahead to a time when you may not be so able-bodied. But an increasing number of Nova Scotians are making preparations for potential mobility issues as they age – allowing them to remain in their own home during their golden years.

Ryan McNeil, President of Stonewater Homes, says he’s also seeing more and more homeowners in their 40s and 50s who are starting to think long-term and explore flexible housing opportunities.

“We work with people who are far from old-age, but they know they want to stay in their home for 20 or 30 years, and they’re thinking about what that might look like,” says McNeil. “They want to know they have options, without having to move.”

These homeowners are thinking ahead to the possibility that they might be using a walker, cane, or wheelchair in the future, and ensuring their home will be able to accommodate their new way of getting around.



McNeil says the biggest consideration is the use, or potential future use, of a wheelchair.

“You need to allow for wider hallways, wider doorways, and barrier-free access to doors and entryways,” says McNeil. “You also need to think about the placement of electrical plugs – having them a few inches higher – and the placement of light switches – which should be a few inches lower than usual.”

McNeil says some homeowners are choosing to build an accessible home from the ground up, and others are deciding to make a few modifications to their existing home during a planned renovation.

“It doesn’t cost a great deal more to widen hallways or use wider doorways, and you’ll probably re-capture the cost when you go to sell,” says McNeil.

With an increased number of elderly parents moving in with their adult children, McNeil says he’s noticed a spike in demand for basement apartments – often with a potential in-law suite in mind.

Rooms to accommodate wheelchairs or physical limitations can still be designed to suit your tastes and not look “institutional”. This spacious bathroom features a wheelchair-friendly vanity and zero-threshold entry to a wide shower, complete with grab bars.

If you were to create a basement apartment from scratch in an existing home, he says it would cost a great deal more than preparing it properly during a build or renovation.

That’s why many homeowners are at least leaving the option open at the time of construction by installing plumbing that would allow for a future kitchen and/or bathroom. This allows them to either house an aging family member, or potentially turn the space into a rental unit for extra income.

“A flexible home gives you options in the future, if things change in your family or in someone’s needs,” says McNeil. “But it can also significantly increase your resale value. If you decide to sell your home in five years with these options, it’s going to be attractive to potential buyers.”

But these modifications aren’t limited to new construction. Sherry Donovan, Communications Director for the Nova Scotia Home Builders’ Association, says even standard kitchen or bathroom renovations can become an opportunity to make your home more flexible.

Even if you don’t want or need grab bars now, plan ahead and reinforce the bathroom walls to accommodate an installation later.

“You may not need or want grab bars in your bathroom now, but if you reinforce the walls now, it makes it easy to add grab bars in the future,” says Donovan. “Once you have the walls open, that’s the time to do something like this.”

With Atlantic Canada’s rapidly-aging Baby Boomer population, Donovan says it’s more important than ever for older adults to talk about their long-term plan for their home.

“If you think about things in advance, you’re not rushed in the event you have disability or mobility challenges come up suddenly,” says Donovan. “If you think about it now, before you need it, it makes things a whole lot easier.”

Donovan says the first step is to consider a home’s pathways, and how easily you could travel from room to room, and within a single room, if you were using a wheelchair, cane, or walker.

Thirty-six inches is considered an accessible standard for hallways and doorways, but certain rooms require more space to move around.

“In the kitchen, you’ll want even more room because of cupboards and appliances opening up. A 42-inch pathway will allow you to maneuver comfortably,” says Donovan. “And bathrooms must be spacious enough to be able to accommodate a wheelchair pivoting and moving around.

Traveling throughout the house is important, but it’s a moot point unless you can actually get inside. Zero-grade entries allow a wheelchair to smoothly pass through a doorway, and ensure that a wheelchair- or walker-user doesn’t have a lip to trip over.

Whether the front of a home has three little steps or a steep flight of 12 steps up to the porch, the journey from the driveway to the front door itself can be dangerous or even impossible for many people with limited mobility. There are a few different options depending on the space you have available.

Ron Swan, President of Home Safe Living, says ramps are the traditional option. However, many homeowners prefer not to install a ramp, because of strict regulations that require it to zig-zag back and forth across their lawn.

Keep note of thresholds and entry-ways… how easy would access into and around your home be for a wheelchair or other assistance device?

“A ramp can’t be too steep, so for every inch of height you need 12 inches in length. That’s why you see ramps go for such long distances back and forth,” says Swan. “But a porch-lift is often less expensive than a ramp, and it brings someone right up to the front door.”

Although many older homeowners are choosing one-storey living so they can avoid dealing with interior stairs, Swan says there’s no need be limited to a single floor anymore.

“We’ve been putting in a lot residential elevators, usually 1-2 a month, as people build their retirement homes and want to make sure they’re fully accessible as they age,” says Swan. “We see a lot of people who think they’ll have to sell their home and move into a bungalow, but we show them how they can stay where they are.”

A residential elevator typically costs $25,000-$30,000 depending on options and is usually designed to travel between three storeys.

Swan says a residential elevator adds value to a home, because they’re useful in so many different situations. Many elevator-enthusiasts don’t have mobility issues at the time of installation, but they recognize they could in the future. He’s installed residential elevators for families with young children, to make it easier to get from level to level. They also make it a breeze to move heavy items.



“It’s becoming more of a regular home appliance, especially for upscale homes,” says Swan. “You can design them to fit in with your home, with cherry wood panels or anything you can think of, and they look very natural.”

Swan once installed an elevator for an active customer who had recently retired. He wasn’t in a wheelchair, but he’d had operations on both knees and couldn’t handle the stairs anymore.

“He still plays golf and he’s very active, but he just decided it would be easier if he didn’t have to take the stairs between three levels anymore,” says Swan. “So we installed an elevator with windows in the back, so you can look out over the lake. It’s a beautiful view.”

In-home elevators are becoming very popular, especially for people wanting to stay in their multi-level homes into their senior years.

Elevators require some advance planning, because otherwise they could eat up an entire room on every level when you go to install them later. So homeowners who think they may add one down the line are advised to choose a “maybe” spot during the construction process.

“If you stack large closets on top of each other, you’re leaving yourself a spot for an elevator shaft, if you need one down the road,” says Donovan. “But stair-lifts are still popular, too, especially for retrofits.”

McNeil says technological advances in home automation are making it easier for people to control aspects of their home without stirring a step. They can shut off every light in the house, adjust the temperature, or even call for help – all with the touch of a button.

“It makes it easier for people with mobility issues, because it’s less moving around,” says McNeil. “It also helps regulate heating and energy costs, which is important especially for retired folks on a fixed income.”

Before beginning a project, Swan says he meets with the client, and sometimes a healthcare professional as well, to fully understand what they’ll need now and in the future.

“There’s never a one-size-fits-all solution. If someone’s health situation is very serious and maybe they don’t have very much time left, it doesn’t make sense to put in long-term modifications,” says Swan. “It really depends on the situation.”

From worries about slipping and falling to problems getting in and out of bed, Swan says there are simple products that can be installed to help people who are having a difficult time in their home.

“We take out tubs and put in walk-in ‘curb-less’ shower units – with collapsible rubber water retainers that allow a chair to be wheeled over it easily,” says Swan. “We have a ‘super pole’ product that we can install next to a chair or a bed, and it makes it easy to pull yourself up or lower yourself down.”

“It’s about having as much independence as you possibly can.”

Donovan says there are very useful products on the market to make homes safer and more accessible, like nonslip flooring tiles, kitchen cabinet pull-outs, and upper cabinets that glide down for lower access with the push of a button.

Think ahead for ease of use in high-traffic and common storage areas, such as in the kitchen. Convert lower cupboards into sliding drawers so they can be accessible and fully utilized without bending down.

Countertops can be installed at varying heights, to accommodate the lower reach of someone in a wheelchair. You can also install fake lower cabinets that collapse inward, allowing a wheelchair user to roll right up to the counter and work comfortably.

The wrong location or style of an appliance can be a huge hindrance to someone with limited accessibility.

“A stove with the buttons along the back is a safety hazard to someone in a wheelchair, and so is a wall-mounted oven that swings down rather than open, or a refrigerator with a high freezer,” says Donovan. “You also need to think about things like not installing a microwave above a stove.”

“The placement of appliances can make a big difference, even for people who aren’t in a wheelchair.”

Having a well-lit home is important as you age, especially if your eyesight declines, so Donovan says homeowners should investigate the location and height of their light switches.

“If you have mobility issues, you need to be able to see where you’re going, especially in kitchens and bathrooms,” says Donovan. “Your switches should be at the opening of each room, so you don’t need to stumble around in the dark to turn on a light.”

Even the design of a door should be considered, so it doesn’t block a hallway or trap someone inside a room in an emergency.

“Think about how the door swings. If it swings inward, how can someone help you if you slip and fall on the other side of it?” says Donovan.



She says many people are afraid they will turn their beloved house into an assisted living residence, complete with institutional-like chrome grab-bars, but assisted living products have come a long way in terms of aesthetics. You can buy sleek brushed nickel towel bars that have a discreet curved grab bar above them, or stylish colourful ones that serve as an accent colour in the room.

Donovan says it’s easy to create a really nice-looking room that’s still safe and functional, which can only increase the value of your home, especially as the population continues to age.

“People are moving back to Nova Scotia to retire here, and they’re coming back looking for safer houses,” says Donovan. “If you have a house that’s prepared for that, the resale value is going to be excellent.”

Swan says when these modifications are done properly, they are not immediately noticeable – and that’s what homeowners want.

“You design a home for people of all abilities, and when it’s done right, it takes you a minute before you realize ‘Oh wow, it’s accessible for me, too,’” says Swan. “That’s always the goal.”

Whether you need to address current mobility issues, or you’re looking to make your home accessible long into the future, Donovan says it’s never too early to ask questions about what’s possible.

“Plan ahead, have an idea of what you’re looking for, and talk to a professional about what’s feasible,” says Donovan. “The modification possibilities are endless, but they can help you decide what’s the best value for your money and safety.”

“Because when you feel safe in your own home, it makes everything feel better.”

Heather Laura Clarke

Heather Laura Clarke

Heather Laura Clarke is a freelance journalist whose work regularly appears in many Atlantic Canadian newspapers and magazines, including The Chronicle Herald, Metro, Hub Now, Business Voice, Dugger's, Progress, East Coast Living, Bedford Magazine, and Southender Magazine. She also has several corporate clients.