Dream Home- Tips for the Empty Nester (… and beyond)

Part 1- Accessibility and Safety


Mosaic tile makes a great non slip floor. Note the flush shower floor- no curb to step over. The tub deck extends to provide a bench in the shower. Walls provided with blocking to allow easy installation of grab bars in the future.

I’ve recently had 3 separate clients who, during the course of their project, have had accidents that resulted in temporary mobility challenges. As I was preparing to write about designing for the “empty nester”, I thought of these three men, all in the age range that would fit into this group.

Empty Nesters often decide it’s a good opportunity to pursue a new life for themselves in a different setting- time to create a dream home that they can stay in through their older years.

We all know that the ideal home for the elderly and disabled should be subtly different from those of younger, able-bodied people. If you are planning a new home in which you might live into your old age, take time now to think about and invest in a design that will help make those later years as comfortable and safe as possible. Slipping and falling is the cause of half all deaths by accident in the home. With careful planning and an eye to good design, you can achieve these goals without making the house feel like an old-age home.

Below are a few broad-stroke suggestions for you to ponder.


Around the house

  • Slip resistant flooring is available in many materials: textured porcelain or stone, rubber or linoleum tile, wood floors with anti slip finish. Avoid polished finishes.
  • Doorways — doors as well as circulation areas should be wide enough for someone with a walker or wheelchair to safely navigate.
  • Door operation — Sliding (or pocket) doors are a great option; easy to operate and without the space impediment of swinging doors. Self-closing hardware is available for pocket doors. Where one does have conventional swinging doors, avoid knob handles — lever handles are far easier to use for anyone who experiences difficulty with their hands or wrists (or when hands are dirty or full).
  • Outdoor Access — For an outdoor deck or porch, match the floor height from inside to out, and using a recessed door sill allows for ease of movement and reduced tripping.


It is here that we are most vulnerable and prone to accident. Key issues to consider:

  • Grab bars — they don’t have to look so institutional. They can serve multiple purposes by integrating with soap and shampoo shelves, hand shower bars and other accessories, and can be integrated into an overall design scheme in an artful way. Even if you don’t want grab bars now, we suggest putting blocking in the walls (and have a record of where it is) so that they can be easily installed at a later time.
  • Tubs — With the higher walls of a deep soaking tub, getting in and out is much easier than a standard tub (just like a conventional car vs a low sports car) since you are sitting at about the same height as a chair.
  • Curb-less Showers — a continuous floor is what you want, not only for walkers or wheelchairs access, but also to avoid tripping. This also creates a nicer overall look with a continuous floor surface.
  • Bigger showers — wider, without a door, allows easier access for oneself and for the times of a second person assisting.
  • A shower seat — not only great for the elderly, but also easier for shaving legs. We suggest you add a hand-held shower near the seat.
  • Toilets placement — avoid tight or enclosed spaces, particularly should mechanical or personal assistance ever be required. Also, install an electrical outlet by the toilet. This will allow retrofitting a washlet later if personal sanitation becomes more difficult.
  • Storage — best positioned where it can be easily reached by someone with physical impairments. Drawers in the sink vanity are ideal.
  • Slip resistant flooring — This is vital, especially in the shower. Consider highly textured porcelain tiles, stone, rubber or linoleum tile/ wood floors with anti slip finish.


Rather than counter height seating so commonly found at islands, the table as part of the island provides a lower work surface for someone who might need to be seated.


The heart of the home. Good planning here makes the kitchen easy to use by cooks of any age.

  • Counter heights — Design your kitchen to have different counter heights so that sitting while working is an option. An area with a table height counter rather than having all standard height counters will give you flexibility for the future.
  • Ovens — French or pivot door ovens are available and allow easier and safer access than the standard flip down door.
  • Cooktops with controls at the front will be easier and safer to use than the ones with controls on the side.
  • Maximize cabinet storage at easy-to reach-heights. Tall upper cabinets may be hard to reach and should not be counted upon for day-to-day storage.

There are many other factors to consider in designing a home that truly maximizes the potential of safe and independent living for the elderly. With forethought and creativity, these can all be integrated into a design that suits your future needs. Discuss your concerns with your architect or designer, and do your own research to find those elements that will make your life easier down the road.

I sometimes refer to split levels and ranches as “The Other Mid Century style”. They may not quite call to mind the classic mid century modern houses that have become so desirable, but with a little imagination, they do offer a great opportunity to create a modern home for this century.

I grew up in a 1958 split level house in suburban Philadelphia, and I remember even as a child recognizing the distinctively different feel from my friends’ traditional colonial houses. The more open plan, cathedral ceiling in the living room, and the 50’s decor seemed so cool by comparison. And the half flight up to the bedrooms and half flight down to the playroom seemed so easy compared to the conventional three level configuration.

Split levels and ranches became popular during the post WWII suburban expansion and reflected a desire for a more modern style home. The splits worked well on sloped or smaller sites, offering an open layout, yet more compact than a spread out ranch. In some homes, the arrangement allowed for cathedral ceilings in the living room since there was not a second floor above.

Somewhere along the way, split levels became something of a pariah. These houses generally lack both the design sophistication of a classic mid-century modern house from the same period or the character and charm of a traditional Colonial or Tudor. When found in neighborhoods with high land values, they often become tear downs that make way for more conventional Colonial style mansions. But from my experience and what I hear from local realtors, there is a growing demand for more modern homes, and these splits and ranches may be the best bet short of building a new house from scratch.

The split level modernization projects I’ve done have mostly included additions and exterior “curb appeal” makeovers. A common addition is adding a level above the one story portion, usually for a master suite and other related spaces. Addition on the back can create a larger kitchen or family room space. One project completely re-conceived the idea of a split level, and resulted in a dramatic home with the different levels intertwining in unexpected ways.




Englewood Cliffs, NJ

This client had hired an architect who completed the plans for a second floor addition. However, the client wasn’t happy with how the outside was looking, and asked us to re-design the exterior without making any big changes to the plans. The biggest design change we made was to change the gabled roofs to hip roofs, which immediately created a better resolution between the two wings of the house, and established consistent horizontal lines to the wall surfaces. The entry was given a cantilevered canopy, the bay window squared off, and the break up of materials further accented the horizontal connection between the volumes.

Tenafly, NJ

In this project, the client wanted to add a larger kitchen and family room to the back of the house, along with a new deck. This freed up space for a powder room and large pantry area at the living level. At the upper level, the space was reconfigured to provide a more generous master suite, eliminating one bedroom. A new bedroom and bathroom was added to the lower level in the area that had good window exposure. The existing entry sequence from driveway to front door was unwelcoming and included an un-needed circular driveway that was too close to the front door. Our design included a re-working of the front landscape.

This house already had hipped roofs, and our window and material choices helped to further modernize the overall look of the house.

These elevations show a different approach to material choices that I had presented, but the client opted for the black and white approach. 

Summit, NJ

The owners of this house had outgrown the space and embarked on an ambitious plan to enlarge the home and create a more modern expression. The neighborhood was full of these same style homes, but one by one, they were being torn down and replaced by the traditional style homes that developers were putting up around the state. For this project, we kept the original foundation and basic premise of the split level, and proceeded to create a modern home more in keeping with the mid-century spirit of the original. We had to submit for a variance to move the garage entry to the front of the house, and among the comments from various township departments was this very gratifying observation.

“The Historic Preservation Commission commends the owner and Architect for their proposed transformative design of one of the tract mid-century split-level homes- typical of the neighborhood- into a modern home in keeping with it’s mid-century influence. As an expression of its own time, the diagnosis is properly scaled to the neighborhood, and successfully addresses the site conditions, and utilizes material appropriate to their proposed use. We also like that the proposed design resists the common ersatz new-traditional inclinations that are becoming common in this neighborhood. No objections.”

The stair down was reconfigured to make a better flow from the new mudroom off the garage as well as new basement space under the rear addition. Setting the master suite second floor addition back from the front allowed a high ceiling area in the living room.

Scotch Plains, NJ

These owners lived in the neighborhood and were looking for an opportunity to create a modern, larger home nearby. This property met their need in terms of the location and the property size and character, and included a forlorn split level house that could easily have been a candidate for a tear down. Instead, we decided to retain some of the basic structure and proceeded to make additions and reconfigure space to create a home that took advantage of the various levels in ways that added to the interest of the architecture- resulting in a design that couldn’t have been achieved if a new two level house had been built instead of retaining the split level structure.

The two patios at the back also reflect the split-level nature of the house. The connecting stair follow the interior stair form the kitchen to the lower level dining/ living/ guest room spaces.

The lower level now has two stairs down, one from the entry foyer, one directly from the kitchen. The balcony space above acts as a private congregating space for the family, with a piano tucked in.

See this full project here.