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Is microhousing a viable alternative to aging poorly in place?

When aging in place is out-of-place.  Aging in place may not be for everyone, as the University of Florida's Stephen Golant noted: 48% of seniors spend more than half their income on housing -- 14% of the 75+ still have mortgages.  Separated by distance from adult children, perhaps they suffer from isolation and poor health and other downsides that Dr. Golant spells out in some detail. He recommends that moving out of one's own home need not be viewed as a tragedy, suggesting options like NORCs or village approaches for shared services, moving in with family members, or moving to a smaller home or condo. 

How about much smaller? Place the downsides to aging in place within the context of downward mobility that an aging society like Japan represents. In the midst of diminishing expectations, housing expectations have also diminished, literally -- consider the description of microhousing: "matchbox-size homes stand on plots of land barely large enough to park a sport utility vehicle, yet have three stories of closet-size bedrooms, suitcase-size closets and a tiny kitchen that properly belongs on a submarine." These micro-houses (approximately 300 square feet) today are city dwellings for young people who want to live in the city with a micro budget for housing.

Back in the USA -- prefab microhouses are emerging.  Modular microhousing may be another option beyond those envisioned by Dr. Golant to address the mismatch between housing costs of the seniors who may, as he noted, have to choose between home maintenance and eating or paying for medications. Kits for microhouses that can be placed on existing property are in the market now: for example, a 'sustainable' home starting at 381 square feet like FabCab, an 'Inspired In-laws' unit in which "all generations maintain privacy and families have peace of mind", or a modular medical home like the 288 square foot MedCottage which "can monitor vital signs, filter the air for contaminants, and communicate with the outside world via high-tech video". These are all variations of micro-housing that can be placed on the property of an adult child to enable an aging or ailing family member to be (very) nearby. Attractively designed, these microhouses can be had for under $100K, assuming the availability of land and appropriate zoning. 

In the village, could microhouses be developed in volume? Our suburban sprawl of isolated house lots and transportation-starved streets might be the appropriate setting for a development of microhouses as part of the village-to-village network concept. Imagine that seniors who are becoming house-poor in areas that still have some available land could sell the houses that are starving them, and instead move into an attractive microhouse cluster that is grant-developed and placed on donated town land. Place the cluster within easy access to transportation, services, their previous neighbors and soon-to-be volunteers. Add in more MedCottage-like features: "Sensors alert caregivers to an occupant's fall, and medication reminders are provided via computers. Technology could also provide entertainment options including music, literature and movies." And perhaps the campus areas where these microhouses appear are in or near the very campuses of CCRCs, which already have services that could be expanded to include microhouse residents.  


Microhouse - Backyard Cottages You and your readers may be interested to know more about backyard cottages. Backyard cottages, including our tangent cottage, can be a valuable part of aging in place strategy. The tangent cottage was built by a son for his aging mother so she could live close to home and maintain her independence. To see more about the cottage visit our blog To see examples of backyard cottage plans see also our webpage What is a backyard cottage? Backyard cottages are detached accessory dwelling units, a separate dwelling on the same lot as a primary residence in a residential zone. They are also called granny flats and laneway homes or ECHO housing. Increasing numbers of municipalities are allowing backyard cottages. Backyard cottages are popular with municipalities because they provide affordable housing options and help them to meet growth management goals. They are popular with residents because they provide housing options that allow people to live where they work and play.

Backyard cottages are regulated by zoning codes that limit their size, height, and location. In most cases the owner of the property must live in either the main house or the backyard cottage. Backyard Cottages and Aging in Place Living at home as long as possible is a goal most of us share. Unfortunately, many factors may conspire against this dream. Typical houses and living environments often don’t often favor seniors. In many instances our homes are not accessible for those with mobility impairments and may be located away from family and services. Backyard cottages are a great option for many seniors. On one hand, families may be able to build a backyard cottage on their lot enabling all the benefits of multi-generational living. However, unlike moving into a room in the main house, seniors and their parents are able to maintain their independence. Because new cottages can incorporate universal design standards that facilitate mobility they may be cheaper than remodeling an older house to say add a downstairs bath, or a residential lift. There are many other considerations like efficient environmental controls, easy to use hardware and appliances that will enable a senior to live and function comfortably in their home. A senior may also build a cottage on their own lot to house a caregiver or a family member.

Beyond the immeasurable benefits of having family close by, there may be real financial incentives as well. In home assistance is much less expensive than assisted living or a nursing home care which runs in the range of $3,000 to $5,000 per month*. The cost of a cottage financed through an equity line of credit is in the range of $1,000 per month and increases the value property. *Genworth Financial 2008 Cost of Care Survey What cities allow backyard cottages? A short list of Washington cities that allow backyard cottages; Bremerton, Bellevue, Spokane, Kent, Kirkland, Mercer Island, Mill Creek, Mountlake Terrace, North Bend, Redmond, Sammamish, Seattle, Vancouver. Other northwest cities; Portland Oregon, Vancouver British Columbia. California; all muncipalities are required by state law to accommodate backyard cottages but most don’t make it easy. Santa Cruz being a great example of a city that does. Other cities considering backyard cottages; Denver Colorado, Madison, Wisconsin.

Who designs and builds backyard cottages? A number of companies including microhouse specialize in the design and permitting of backyard cottages and sell cottage plans nationwide. Backyard cottages, even prefab cottages, require traditional concrete foundations that must be designed and stamped by a local engineer. Site built cottages and foundations for prefab units may be built by a contractor familiar with residential construction. Contact us with your address for more information about the requirements for your lot. Links:

I feel its going to be tough for the "super sized" US culture to be sold on this concept in the near future on any large scale. I think there are geographic regions where these might get traction.

I hope that we see more creative examples of elders sharing the larger homes we have built with other elders, students, family, etc. In many of the "villages" I have worked with this is an increasing dialogue as members get to know each other better.

Over time I hope that me and my cohort (I am 45) begin to wake up to the reality that we don't need all the extra space in our homes that define the american dream.

What a wonderful article, Laurie. It's always wonderful to see pieces that are focused on possible solutions to issues facing our elderly community, instead of simply outlining the problems they face. Sadly, I think one roadblock that could stand in the way of microhousing is simply the passion many of our family members have around "aging in home" and everything that home represents to them.

It's very difficult to move someone in the last stages of their lives from everything that is familiar to them into a more realistic, sustainable living space. Having said that, I would like to take your lead and not just highlight the problem -- but also propose a possible solution.

Eldercare is such an important part of so many lives, in fact, care providers are the fastest growing demographic in our nation today. As baby boomers continue to age, we face a great dilemma in this country (or an opportunity, if we choose to see it that way) to serve this vital generation in ways that will allow them to be healthy and vibrant EVERY day of their lives.

Perhaps, as care providers and loved ones, we need to support our elderly community to move into smaller, more sustainable living quarters BEFORE they face a major health or financial crisis. This would enable them to deal with the one trauma at a time. As we all know, moving is never easy -- even when it's for wonderful reasons, like buying a first home. Certainly it is not easy after decades in a home filled with love and memories. Separating THAT experience from issues that may come down the road is one possible way to ease the burden on our elderly community and on the caregivers who support them.

Susan Baida, Co-Founder of eCareDiary