My great-grandfather, Harry, was a signals operator in World War I. Wireless communication in trench warfare was still in its very early stages and, tragically, the radio he was using blew up in his face, leaving him only able to see shadows due to corneal damage. His eyesight deteriorated over the years, and by the time I was a teenager, he was living in an armed forces care facility with other unsighted veterans (and, to my morbid fascination, had replacement glass eyes).
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Visiting him there was my first exposure to smart architectural design modifications for not only the elderly and infirm, but those who could not see. The entire building had white hand rails so veterans could find their way around independently, with braille information panels on doors, and a "rec room" with leather armchairs, audio headsets, and large, easy-to-operate wall-mounted buttons for radio, over-the-air information, and books/newspapers read aloud on demand.
Until recently, it was accepted practice for the elderly to go into such facilities, especially those living with disabilities. But the conversation is now changing as Baby Boomers age; the generation that decided to "turn on, tune in and drop out" is not planning to "go gentle into that good night."
PCMag was in Denver, Colorado, recently and spent a morning at OZ Architecture, an urban and interior design firm founded in 1964, which is now at the forefront of experimental projects for the aging.
Named after the initials of founders Tom Obermeier and Alan Zeigel, OZ has developed national standards for sustainable design at The National Park Service, interior design projects at the Air Force Academy, the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified hospital in the US at Boulder Community Foothills Hospital, and worked further afield in Africa and China.
Due to the pull of the "good life," Colorado's population is undergoing a dramatic demographic shift. Alongside a growing millennial influx, the state's current crop of residents over 65 grew 29 percent between 2010 and 2015, the third fastest rate in the US. By 2030, its aging boomers will have increased 68 percent, prompting Gov. John Hickenlooper to develop a Strategic Action Planning Group on Aging.
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Architect Jami Mohlenkamp, along with OZ designers Julia Bailey and Julie Zielinksi, hosted a panel discussion about designing communities for an aging population at OZ's HQ as part of Denver Startup Week recently. They looked at what Baby Boomers have come to expect from emerging technology, such as robots that lift and in-home remote healthcare. They also touched on the "tiny" and premanufactured house movement amongst clients looking to downsize.
Clients are already asking OZ Architecture for Elon Musk's Tesla Energy Powerwall to ensure they can survive when the grid goes down and live a more energy-efficient life. The firm has been drawing up blueprints for future communities that see drones making medical supply deliveries, and residents zooming around in electric autonomous vehicles or socializing in areas surrounding tiny homes.
They even brought up the usually unmentionable subject of death. Colorado recently passed Proposition 106, the End of Life Options Act, so aging communities will need to have somewhere for families to grieve as their loved one slips away through a cocktail of chemicals.
The picture OZ Architecture painted was a world away from the awful prospect of aging in a hospital-like residential facility. In fact, the firm sees these future communities as less a permanent fixture and more like "docking stations" for groovy elders, where temporary residents roam far and wide in modified autonomous trailers and check in for medical check-ups, some retail therapy, and inspiration for where to go next.
Feeling rather optimistic about the future, PCMag sat down with Mohlenkamp, Bailey, and Zielinski after the panel.
"We've always had a regular amount of work in the senior living space, and we wanted to push the creative thought in innovative ways," Mohlenkamp said. "Part of our strength is that we try to move clients beyond what they already know, plus there are a lot of tech innovations in senior living, that we're drawing on as partners."
An important aspect of OZ Architecture's work is the use of data science to help clients understand what they're paying for and how it will enable them to live well as they age. A 440-square-foot tiny home, for example, works out to under $200 per square foot or $75,000, Zielinski said.
Interestingly enough, due to the shifting demographic patterns in Colorado, Zielinski is already living a more sustainable life, so she won't find growing older too much of a downsizing dilemma.
"I live in Wheat Ridge, which is becoming something of a naturally occuring senior community," she told PCMag. "Plus, it's next to Tennyson, which is an up-and-coming trendy millennial development so there's a real generational mix side by side. I'm already living in a...900-square-foot house, originally built in the 1950s, which we've been slowly adapting to be Net Zero Energy eventually. We're looking to embed solar panels next year, and all appliances are now electric, monitored by a Sense home energy IoT device, which looks at the waves of the power used to manage our consumption."
Julia Bailey recently moved to Denver from Chicago and—in true Colorado-style—already has solar panels in her house. "It's nice to know we can move towards sustainability, even now," she said.
"For me, aging will become a reinvention of life," said Mohlenkamp, who started his family at a young age and didn't get to "hang out" in his 20s in quite the same way as his contemporaries. "My wife and I are looking forward to having a 'young' experience as we age: more community connection, living where we're able to walk to places, dine, yet be near nature. All the things we've been discussing today in our aging design concepts."
Before we left, I strapped on a Samsung Gear VR to "walk around" a tiny home rendering, and get a sense of the dimensions, discuss options to switch out materials, fixtures, and fittings, get a peek at the view of mountains, and understand how close the next aging dweller would be in this new vision of growing older while living well. Until death is "optional," due to regenerative gene editing and whole brain emulation into synthetic avatar replacement bio-units, that is.