Flex Housing

“FlexHousing™ is an award-winning concept and a viable alternative in today’s market.”

–Tom Parker


A SUSTAINABLE WAY TO BUILD

We have been talking about accessible housing for thirty years, but I think our aging population will push us to get it done. Baby boomers have the money and influence to make things happen. They will demand something different.

By the time I sit down to design a building or a house, I have already done a lot of homework. The needs of the end users direct my thinking. People who are aging or people with visual and other physical disabilities are topmost in my mind because they tend to be my clients. They influence me. To accommodate them, we need reasonably spaced accommodations, which is also often multi-generational. Working from the inside out as I do is called experiential architecture.

Tom Parker, who helped coin the phrase FlexHousing™ in 1995 when he worked with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, had comparable conclusions. FlexHousing™ is adaptable, accessible, and affordable. According to Tom: “FlexHousing™ is an award-winning concept and a viable alternative in today’s market.” Recently, CMHC has insisted as well on the need for healthy housing. The typical Canadian house is none of these things!

We entered two submissions into the FlexHousing™ Design Competition: one for the single-detached housing and the other for the horizontal multiple housing. In both categories, we were the “Prairie Regional Winner” in Stage 1. Our single detached housing concept later received a National Award of Merit. 

The above floor plan drawings and 3D renderings show three phases of the FlexHouse™ design.

As one of four winners across Canada, my design had to produce housing that could be easily adapted to meet the present and future needs of the occupants. As the competition booklet reasoned; “This adaptability will become increasingly important as our population ages. As lifestyle changes, and as we witness an increase in home-based activities and new technologies.” Our designs were cost effective while being both appealing and marketable to the consumer.

As the winner in the Single Detached Housing Category, in the Competition, we explored ways we could most cost effectively build the project. I had already developed a working relationship with many of the non-profit organizations located in Edmonton, especially Habitat for Humanity – Edmonton. In time, we were able to put together a project construction team that included CMHC, Habitat for Humanity – Edmonton, and Ron Wickman Architect.

The experience of working with Habitat for Humanity – Edmonton tested the flexibility of the FlexHouse™ design. Habitat for Humanity had their own dwelling design criteria: keeping space to a minimum.

With the spirit of compromise and co-operation we were able to provide two different house designs that both satisfied the original intent of our FlexHouse™ design and those of Habitat for Humanity. This project promotes a more compact, affordable, and efficient city. Because it is located in the inner city close to a great variety of amenities, it encourages more pedestrian traffic and less automobile traffic by tapping into the city’s existing infrastructure. Located on a smaller lot, the design uses its land efficiently and effectively. This is sustainable design, as called for by the architects who participated in the 15th Venice Architectural Biennale, 2016.  

The above image shows the completed FlexHouses™ from the street. Stairs lead to the front doors of both homes. The existing underground service lines were not deep enough to lower the homes to create a no-step entrance. However, we had more space in the backyard to slope a sidewalk to the back door for a no-step entrance. 

The two completed houses identify a base two-story, three-bedroom dwelling with the potential for differing addition phases. The corner dwelling represents this base house design, while the mid-block dwelling represents a base house complete with a full bath and separate suite / home office on the main floor.

Both houses can be expanded or added onto over time, as necessary, starting small and taking on future additional space for a variety of needs: teenagers, a home office, or a separate suite. Young couples with children, single parents, seniors, and persons with disabilities can also be accommodated in time.

Designed to accommodate a variety of family types, the starter home, that in time can grow and even be subdivided, allows for an affordable dwelling to be purchased and later expanded to include additions that house office space, bedroom rentals, or garden suites. The project also has the potential to house one family, an extended family, or two separate families. The project is designed to function equally well on a mid-block or corner lot. 

The above image shows an exterior view of the homes facing the rear yard. The back entrance to the home on the left is visitable. The one on the right is not. The house on the left will never need money, time, or energy to create a no-step entrance. The gently sloping sidewalk to the back door eliminates the need for steps, providing easy access for persons in wheelchairs. The roof overhang on both houses protects residents and visitors from ice and rain. Both decks are room sized to facilitate future cost-efficient additions with their intact roof and foundations. 

The image beside shows an interior view of a second-floor bathroom. To accommodate a wheelchair, a five-foot turning space is provided; plywood backing is installed on the bathtub and toilet walls making it easier to install grab bars anywhere, in the future. Designed to simultaneously satisfy users with varying disabilities and of various ages, the project provides on-grade access, open floor plans, adjustable kitchen counters, lever door handles, adjustable closet rod and shelf heights, easy-to-grasp handrails. Rocker style switches installed at a lower height, have easier-to-reach outlet locations, which benefit those individuals in wheelchairs or using walkers. 

The project specified materials and building methods that promoted sustainable construction and healthy housing.

The Habitat for Humanity job site is not a place for a designer with an ego. Everyone must focus on the needs of the families first. For me, working on this project was both humbling and emotionally rewarding.

Whenever I watched the hundreds of volunteers, I felt that I was getting published or promoted. The volunteers were completely selfless.

During the final launch of the CMHC FlexHouse™ Open House, with the Honorable Anne McLellan in attendance, I was invited to say a few words about my experience orchestrating this project. “What started off as an architectural experience ended up being a life experience far richer that I could have ever imagined.”

The project was special. The design was unique and innovative, and the construction process even more unusual with hundreds of volunteers visiting the site every day. The combination of these two made this project one of the greatest challenges I may ever face as an architect. I needed to be on site every day to ensure that the intent of the design was being adhered to. This process was incredibly time consuming while being intensely rewarding. 

“The idea of making the next Habitat for Humanity home an R-2000 home is a very positive message, getting away from the image of R-2000 being only for upper-end homes.” 

- Joel Nodelman, manager, sustainable development for EPCOR

The above image shows workers putting up a second-story exterior wall. The man at the back will become the eventual homeowner. 

Core Association

“Designing with positive wayfinding in mind helps everyone feel safe and comfortable.”

–Ron Wickman


HOUSING WITH HEART

The above image shows an exterior view of the building. The design takes advantage of the south-facing valley views. Large skylights bring natural southern light into the heart of the building. The exterior form and finishing is inspired by modern and rural architecture. The use of common local materials such as corrugated metal and stucco helps to link the building to its regional context. 

In early 2011, Clients Ongoing Rehabilitation and Equality (CORE) Association hired me to develop plans for a new innovative home that would allow individuals to age in place by remaining in the community with familiar caregivers, ensuring a quality of life with the care they need and deserve. This project involved the conversion of a four-classroom school and gymnasium into an eight-bedroom residential home for people with developmental disabilities and a concurrent diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. 

In 1960, CORE had built the George P. Vanier School in Medicine Hat, Alberta for 15 students. In the early 1980s, the school became part of the Medicine Hat School District and five years later, it was closed. Work began on its residence conversion in 2011. The transformation of the George P. Vanier School into a home for long-term care is based on an age – in - place care - support model providing the necessary resources for those living with disabilities and complex needs. The entire facility design is based on accessible living allowing for maximum mobility and independence. 

Residents of the new home were born with some form of cognitive limitation, and have later also developed some form of dementia. The design facilitates care for residents with dementia, accommodating their special needs such as safety, sufficient illumination, choice of movement, and a clearly legible circulation system. 

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The above drawing shows an interior view of the living and kitchen area of the CORE Care Home. The circulation systems provide for clear composition of spaces that can be easily perceived. Our attempt was to create positive and purposeful relationships between indoors and outdoors, light and dark areas, for loud and peaceful rooms, and allow residents to be on their own or a part of the larger community. 

The home was designed to provide residents a clear choice for movement, and to respect their wishes for self-control. The challenge is to design a safe environment, but not in a way that residents feel that their movement is being controlled or restricted. Persons with dementia can become agitated when they feel that others control their movement. As most people age they feel a need for a safe and secure environment, especially those persons with dementia. The environment was designed to make finding one’s way around easy and to provide a sense of security, without using schematic signage and wayfinding systems typically seen in hospitals.

The design attempts to address and cater to the needs of the residents and staff, not the conditions with which the residents live.

The one-story building now houses eight residents with two respite bedrooms available for use by the community. All ten residences incorporate their own fully accessible bathroom. The gymnasium was converted into a kitchen and dining area. Other functions in the building include a Crafts Room, Laundry Room, Therapy Tub Room, Public Washroom, and Office Space. To make all of this work, additions were completed to the North, West and East sides of the building. 

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The image beside shows an interior view of a hallway space. The use of color and textural contrast can be very powerful, Herein, color and textural contrast is kept to a minimum to minimize too much visual complexity. The lesson here is to minimize visual stimulation and provide instead more purposeful visual stimulation. 

Indoor spaces have been designed to be communal and to make choice for movement as easy as possible. Persons with advanced stage dementia tend to walk about in public areas, not in private. Chance contact with others is deemed as a positive thing.

The main design feature of the project is the walk-about. The circular layout of the hallway allows individuals to walk around the whole building without getting lost. Large skylight structures were added to the roof to help bring natural light into the middle of the building and the walk-about. Color and texture contrast is used strategically to better help residents, staff, and visitors in their wayfinding.

The kitchen and living area has been designed to be the center of daily life for the residents and their families and staff. This space is the focus of daily routines and communal life.

All resident bathrooms are designed and constructed as wetrooms. All shower areas are wheelchair accessible and large enough to accommodate a resident and an attendant. This is Accessible Architecture where everyone benefits. 

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The above drawing shows the landscape plan of CORE Care Home. The design of the outdoor space at the CORE Care Home offers the same safe, simple, and easy choice for movement. Easy access to the garden spaces, with familiar native planting to trigger positive memories and free movement allows residents to savor the pleasure of being outside. The outside space was designed to provide sensory stimulation that is meaningful, safe and understandable, as well as to provide for pleasure, socializing, and activity. With the addition of areas of sun and shade, seating and tables, the outdoor environment helps reduce the residents’ behaviors that challenge and stress. Obviously, this makes life easier for the caregivers as well. 

The image beside shows a portion of the exterior south facing walk - about. When the home environment is designed to be beautiful, everyone benefits. Residents, family, staff, and visitors can feel part of the environment and also feel valued. This building owned by CORE has now served as a school and a care home. It is located in a meaningful location, which plays a major role in the community. In time, when our aging population decreases, the building could easily be converted back into a school.