Volume 46, Issue 5 - June 2007

Aging with Ease: Distributors Shouldn’t Miss Out on This Crucial Market Segment

It wasn’t the promise of profit that lured Byron Andrews into the aging-in-place remodeling business. It wasn’t any desire to feed his ego or any quest for market share either. It was something far more personal. It was a family tragedy.

 “I pulled my brother, Dawson, off the bottom of the river on July 4, 1980. He went from a happy-go-lucky, jumping guy to a quadriplegic in the blink of an eye,” Andrews says. “My dad and I started building things for him, and that’s how my business evolved.”

Andrews isn’t the only remodeler seeing his business evolve. Whether it’s someone like Greg Pitkin, in Baton Rouge, La., who was diagnosed with Lou Gerhrig’s disease at a young age, or an aging baby boomer, there are plenty of people who would rather modify their homes instead of moving into assisted living facilities. And this number will only grow. There are 90 million U.S. residents over the age of 50 today, and according to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), someone is turning 50 years of age every seven seconds. 

But finding products for people to use as they age isn’t easy. Many remodelers put creative twists on existing products for the this growing market, which even has a name—“the aging-in-place” market. And, when it comes to finding distributors or dealers who carry or are knowledgeable about aging-in-place products, it’s a challenge. Remodelers, especially those that have a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) designation, are finding it hard to locate the suppliers they need.

The Hot Spots
While it’s difficult for people such as Dawson Andrews to have the freedom they once enjoyed, there are ways to keep physical obstacles to a minimum. First on the list: Improve the entryway access into their homes.

“It’s your connection to the world. If you can’t be free to come and go, then how are you free and independent?” says Louis Tenenbaum, an independent living strategist in Potomac, Md. 

Getting in and out of the house is one thing. Moving around inside creates new challenges. Increasing someone else’s maneuverability means evaluating a number of things, including lighting, hallways, doorways and staircases, safety, comfort and ease of independence in the bathroom and bedroom areas. All those things can increase independence. 

That leads to a simple question: What products are remodelers and contractors using in these types of projects? Often it’s as simple as taking basic products and using them differently.“You have to have good handrails on the stairs for example,” Tenenbaum says. 

“You have to have them on the left, you have to have them on the right, and they should be longer than in the way we are used to seeing them (more like we do see them) in commercial spaces. They should be no shorter than we are used to seeing them in homes, and they should be continuous.”

John Allen, president of the remodeling and building company Southern Construction & Design in Madison, Ala., agrees that you have to be inventive in how you use products.

“We are an Andersen door and window user. We used sliding windows [when doing a recent remodeling job for a woman with a brain tumor]. They are a lot easier to use than casements, if you have crippled hands,” he says. “The thing with a lot of products I’ve found, they don’t have a universal design stamp on them, they just have to be utilized in the right manner and in the right situation to make sense for that user’s unique needs.”

Bob Alvis, F/X Repair & Remodeling in Portland, Ore., likes to use casement windows in his aging-in-place remodels. 

“We frequently put in a casement window where there has been a double hung, because they are easier for someone in a wheelchair or for someone who has trouble with gripping,” he says. “You can crank a window much easier than trying to open and close a standard double-hung window.”

He also says his company trims a lot of casement windows and doors with Azek materials because they are easier to keep clean and can withstand bumps from wheelchairs or walkers.

Tony Bunch of Signature Building in Jonesboro, Ark., uses Masonite doors for interior door openings, which he typically makes 36 inches wide. Pella is his product of choice for exterior doors. “We put products in there that will last—good brand name doors,” he says.

The Product Source
While remodelers feel it’s hard to find distributors and dealers that are knowledgeable about aging-in-place products, they say they buy as many products as possible from their usual sources that they can. But there is room for improvement; distributors and dealers could and should offer aging-in-place products. 

“For building ramps, we usually buy at Lowe’s or JT White Hardware & Lumber. To make the ramps, we use treated lumber and sometimes composite so they won’t rot. It’s more expensive, but it’s just according to what the budget is. If we can use all composite, that’s what we do,” Bunch says. 

Allen says a lot of his products are commercially available through distributors he does business with, but sometimes the client drives the remodel. His clients will tell him, “I was on the Internet and I saw this.” 

Allen then goes on the Internet to see where he can get a deal, and sometimes, he contacts the company saying, “I know I’ve never bought from you, but I need this specific product.”

Kevin Ahern of Litchfield Builders Inc. in Hamden, Conn., says his company buys a lot of its products from local distributors but for some—the real specialty items—he goes online to buy. “It’s probably a mix,” he says.

One distributor that does cater to the aging-in-place market is Mans Lumber and Millwork in Canton, Mich. The company sells entry systems for the aging-in-place market, and these systems make getting in and out of the house less of a challenge. 

“The simplest thing to do is replace awkward doorknobs with lever systems,” says Kristen Schrader, marketing manager for Mans. “There are so many really attractive styles and finishes now, and even someone going in with a bag of groceries finds a lever easier to maneuver.”

Schrader says there are also keyless entry systems that use a keypad, so there’s no fumbling with anything at all.

Mans Lumber is open to the public, but most of its customers are builders and remodelers. 

“They are looking for these products not only to meet client demand, but also to differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace. Since we do a large amount of special orders, we can really get whatever the remodeler or their client has found,” she says. “A lot of selling these products has to do with letting people know how to use them in aging-in-place [projects]. The product may not even have been developed with that in mind, but when you think about how they could be used in that forum, it all comes together.”

Remodelers would like to see the aging–in-place market come together for even more distributors. If they ignore this market, they could be missing out on a big opportunity.

“Boomers are the people that are gong to be in demand in the next two or three years. They don’t want to go into nursing homes, they don’t want to retire, they are full of energy and they are going to live in their house as long as they can,” Bunch says. 

A Fulfilling Job
Many aging-in-place remodelers don’t just see their job as a way to make money. They say it is a fulfilling occupation.

John Allen, president of the remodeling and building company Southern Construction & Design in Madison, Ala., worked on a project for Casey Whitson, who was hit by a drunk driver as a teenager and, as a result, is a quadriplegic. 

“At first it was a bathroom remodel, but then they figured out his parents’ house wouldn’t work for him. At that point, the Home Builders Association of Madison County came up with a plan to build a room and a bathroom in their existing garage,” Allen says. “Then it grew to be an entire house. Instead of a home makeover, we decided to do something entirely new.”

Louis Tenenbaum, an independent living strategist in Potomac, Md., was working as an independent contractor when he was asked to work on a project for a young man who was a paraplegic. 

“His mother asked me if I could help them so when [her son] got out of rehabilitation that he could be independent in the bathroom,” Tenenbaum says. “That opened me up to a project that was of significant value to this family, and I was turned on by that.”

Tony Bunch with Signature Building of Jonesboro, Ark., recently built a walk-in shower for a disabled young lady that is wheelchair-bound for life. Her parents are getting older, and they couldn’t get her in the shower to bathe her. 

“I engineered a special shower, so they could push her in there to give her a bath,” he says. “This job isn’t only good to make money at, but it’s very fulfilling when you help someone and make their life easier.”

What’s Universal Design?
The intent of universal design is to simplify life for everyone by making products, communications and the built environment more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost. Universal design benefits people of all ages and abilities, according to the Center for Universal Design.

by Samantha Carpenter, editor of Shelter™ magazine.

© Copyright 2007 Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved. No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.