Maryland’s Stay-at-Home mandate offers unique opportunities. Continuing my interest and accessibility expertise, I participated in the Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) training program. Presented by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and coordinated by Maryland Building Industry Association (MBIA), our session included General Contractors and Design-Builders, Architects and Designers, Product/ Material Vendors and Occupational Therapists.
Now, as a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS), my accessible design expertise has only slightly increased. My understanding, however, about the range of needs and solutions has certainly become more focused.
First introduced to the real need for accessible design through a friendship with a young man that had lost both legs in a motorcycle accident, I have been grateful for that encounter throughout my career.
While attending the University of Cincinnati, I met a fellow student on my way to work in the architectural library, which was located on the third floor. For the purposes of this article, I’ll call him ‘Mike.’
As we stopped at the bottom of the stairs, I just assumed we’d be parting ways, but he hopped off of his wheelchair, folded it neatly, tucked it under his arm and began to ascend the staircase with one extremely strong arm and torso. I offered to help – he was appreciative, but adamant about being self-sufficient. I was impressed enough, but then learned he was studying towards a double major – architecture and urban planning.
He worked extra hard to achieve his goals, including regular visits to our library, but there were some classes that were difficult for him to reach. Most professors were willing to adjust class locations so he could attend. One professor was rudely dismissive, however, and I joined Mike as part of a small support group to meet with college officials about his request. We knew that his access to classes was worth fighting for, and his determination to succeed and our young, passionate support for him was enough to make an impact. This was well before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but the small win of a class location change was huge for him. Forty years later, it is simply called a required "accommodation", yet I consider the result of his persistence an early Design for Living strategy.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) governs commercial projects. The Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) is used for Federal (or publicly funded) projects. The Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS) and Maryland’s Accessibility Code (COMAR 05.05.02), and ANSI Standards A117.1 are applicable for certain situations.
These regulations are all important to understand, however many clients have specific needs that are not resolved by legislation alone. As an architect, I understand the concept of Universal Design (UD) and the requirements of full ADA Accessibility, but had not used important terms and details about additional population segments on the Disability Spectrum. After my CAPS training, I now understand more about the specific range between: Universal Design, Visitability, Livability, Adaptability, and Accessibility. I learned the importance of having the input of a qualified Occupational Therapist (OT). On past accessibility projects, I relied on my clients to give me their understanding of their own special needs. While that is most important, a qualified CAPS OT may be able to bring even more value to the design effort.
We are all aging, beginning the day we are born (even in the womb) but our culture seems to attribute the term ‘aging in place’ to older people. What does OLD truly mean? Some cultures increase respect with age, however we no longer ask our elders for history – we rely on the internet. Medication, vitamins, healthy eating and fitness may help us live longer, but nothing can actually stop the human aging process.
Aging in Place (AIP) statistics offer an opportunity for the Design/ Construction/ Occupational Health industry. In 1790, census records indicate that only 2% of the population was over 65. In 2025, it is estimated that 1/3 of us will be over 65.
More importantly, however, is that our industry understand the larger impact – we all need and deserve some degree of Aging in Place accommodations. Although AIP is an industry term, perhaps Design for Living is more appropriate. Non-public and residential accessible designs need not always look institutional. As this is recognized by vendors, innovative accessible products are becoming increasingly available, which in the hands of skilled architects create more liveable spaces for all.
That college experience set the course of my understanding and keen interest in accessible design and inspired our work with the US Access Board during the development of the ADA, before it became legislation. I think often of my college friend. Assessing the ADA compliancy of a college campus, I envision Mike maneuvering through the campus, or unable to – adding an emphatic layer to my understanding of accessible design.
Inspiration comes in many ways – embrace it, fuel your passions to improve our built environment. Design for Living to the highest possible standards for all. Thanks, Mike!
Contact me if you would like to learn more about CAPS or accessible design.
Laura Thul Penza, AIA, LEED AP, CAPS
Principal, Penza Bailey Architects