Why did a gerontologist attend Design in the Hills?

Leacey Brown – SDSU Extension Gerontology Field Specialist

Design in the Hills is an event that typically attracts architects, designers, engineers, and other professionals in the building industry so why would a gerontologist attend?  For the benefit of readers not familiar with gerontology, it is the study of aging. In contrast, geriatrics is a medical specialty focused on health care for older adults (65+). Did you notice my use of aging and older adults? Most people think aging is synonymous with older adult. It’s not. Aging is a process of change that occurs over time and begins approximately in our mid-20s. Older adults are people.

Disease and disability are not inevitable outcomes of the aging process. However, the risk of developing a disease or disability increase as we enter the last third of our lives. Gerontological research indicates the outcomes we experience as older adults emerge because of a complex interaction between individual characteristics (nutrition, exercise, stress management, social-economic status, etc.) and the community where we live. In addition, challenges often associated with older age can be mitigated through design interventions. Unfortunately, design interventions to improve health and wellness are rarely discussed outside professions that focus on meeting the needs of older adults. This reality is why I was drawn to Design in the Hills.

I attended my first Design in the Hills in 2016. Not only did the event sound interesting, but I was hoping to build relationships with professionals involved in the building industry. I was completely mesmerized to see the amazing work happening in Rapid City to revitalize and repurpose existing building. The design charrette was absolutely captivating. I was completely out of my element, but participating in the group discussion about how to convert an existing building to housing-with-services was a great experience.

In the time since I attended my first Design in the Hills event, I completed the Dakotas Housing Study. The purpose of this project was to explore existing gaps in consumer knowledge, motivation, and barriers to the implementation of accessible and universal design housing options. The reason this study was needed because of the existing discrepancy between housing options available and the preferences of older adults to remain in their home.

Research studies without clear action steps are useless. To this end, I reached out to Angela Lammers to see if she could help me find individuals in AiA South Dakota that would consent to be interviewed. The goal was to include professional insight about increasing the implementation of design interventions that increase the availability of homes that a person could reasonably expect to live in until their time on this Earth ends. A short time later Angela reached out to me and encouraged me to submit a proposal about the Dakotas Housing Study to Design in the Hills. Imagine my delight to discover it was accepted and they wanted to focus the design charrette on the content of my presentation.

While I enjoyed the presentation, the design charrette was my favorite part. Attendees were given a case study of a couple looking for a house to renovate. A primary goal for the couple was to remain in their home as they get older. They also wanted a second master suite that their adult son could live in while attending trade school. The case study emphasized some specific features the couple wanted to achieve (no-step entrance, bedroom and bathroom on entry level, etc.). Each group was given three options to renovate and asked to make specific recommendations for each property. What I found interesting as I observed the groups working is that many were drawn to the most difficult property (split foyer entrance). The resources needed to accomplish their vision may not be practical, but the creativity unleashed was inspiring.

While I enjoyed seeing all the mockups, the one below was my favorite because the group extended their vision to the outdoor space to ensure that a resident or visitor with a disability could interact with both the interior and exterior space by including a ramp system that led from the home down to a patio area and a play area for children.

Design Charrette Design Solutions

In my mind, one of the most important discussions we had as a group was branding. My research suggests that consumers are interested in universal design housing, but most had never heard of it until they participated in my study. In addition, accessibility is a word with a history rooted in the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) and militant advocates suing business for not complying with the ADA. For this reason, many people have a knee-jerk reaction when they hear it. Ultimately, universal design is about making an environment that performs well for a wide variety of people. How do we brand it so that our customers demand it?

To read the Dakota Housing Study Report please visit the SDSU Extension website: https://extension.sdstate.edu/housing-across-life-span-consumer-knowledge-preferences-and-barriers.

About Leacey Brown

Leacey is an Air Force veteran who decided to stay in the Midwest after her enlistment ended. Her educational achievements include an AAS in Electronic Systems, BA in Psychology and Sociology, and a MS in Gerontology. Leacey facilitates lifelong independence by connecting the people of South Dakota with unbiased, research based information. She co-chairs Community Service Connections of the Black Hills. In Leacey’s professional interests include ageism, aging in place, brain health, community development, demographics, adult technology use, universal design, and accessible design in print and web products.

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