Retirees Home Update : These Retirees Are Aging in Place—a Very Modern, Contemporary Place

Insight Online News

By Nancy Keates

Dan Evans, former governor of Washington and a former U.S. Senator, and his wife, Nancy Evans, are in the middle of building a house—a small but ambitious modern design with lots of angles, a metal roof, and walls of glass.

Mr. Evans is 95 years old. Mrs. Evans is 87.

“It’s fun but a lot of work,” says Mrs. Evans, who declined to disclose the cost of the construction. Mud from heavy rains can make the site difficult to access and Covid restrictions complicate shopping for fixtures and materials.

he couple have owned the property, north of Seattle, for more than 40 years, but say they have always been too busy or didn’t have the money to build. Now, they want to create a space for their three sons and their grandchildren to gather. They hired the architects in 2018. The walls are up and they are working on the kitchen cabinets now. They are hoping it will be done in early June. “You have to do something at our very ancient ages,” jokes Mrs. Evans, who, along with her husband, is on numerous boards and foundations.

Architects across the country have noticed older clients are increasingly taking on new construction and major renovation projects. It is partly because there are more households led by people 65 or older, with a million added nationwide every year between 2014 to 2019, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.

It also reflects a preference for aging at home. A 2018 survey from the AARP found that 86% of those 65 and older agreed with the statement, “What I’d really like to do is stay in my current residence for as long as possible.” A significant share of those who intend to age in place want it to be in a different place from their current residence, according to a 2016 study by Freddie Mac.

Many of these new projects for older people are cutting edge, modern homes—something architects say makes sense. “People say, ‘Why would you start a house if you’re not going to live in it that much longer?’ or ‘Don’t you want a traditional style since you’re older?’ ” says Mary Johnston of Seattle-based Johnston Architects. She and her husband, Ray Johnston, designed the Evans house. But, she says, modern houses tend to have simple lines and open spaces, which make them easier to clean and less prone to clutter.

Materials like concrete and steel are lower maintenance than wood, which needs to be repainted and repaired more often. A modern house, with big windows and walls of sliding glass doors, can create a connection to the landscape more effectively than a traditional house.

“It lets someone in their 70s or 80s, who might not want to go outside as much, still experience nature,” says Casper Mork-Ulnes of Mork-Ulnes Architects, based in San Francisco and Oslo, Norway. He and his wife, Lexie Mork-Ulnes, designed a modern 3,300-square-foot vacation house with four bedrooms and a bunk room in Lake Tahoe, Calif., for her parents, Bert and Sisi Damner, which cost about $1.2 million in 2015.

Mr. Damner, now 82, and Mrs. Damner, now 75, say building a modern house was an adventure—and an opportunity to learn. They had more time to do research and study modern architecture than when they built homes when they were younger, with three children in school, multiple dogs, and work. “I don’t think people should ever stop growing, no matter how old you are,” says Mrs. Damner.

“People think I’m crazy at this age for doing this, but my head is young,” says Susan Clampitt, who is 80 and in the middle of gutting and renovating a house she recently bought in Asheville, N.C., to give it a modern aesthetic. She expects the project will cost about $550,000 and will be finished before this summer.

Ms. Clampitt, former deputy chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, knows what she’s doing. She and her third husband, Jeremy Waletzky, a 78-year-old psychiatrist, took on an equally ambitious renovation of an 1887 house on Capitol Hill in 2014, opening walls, inserting steel beams and putting in larger windows. They were married in the house halfway through construction. “We decided to start a new life in a new house together. It was symbolic for us,” says Ms. Clampitt.

Janet Bloomberg, of Washington, D.C.-based KUBE Architecture, who designed Ms. Clampitt’s project, has recently had more older clients asking for new-construction modern houses, often on the same property where they had lived for years in a more traditional house. “They’re not sentimental at all,” she says. “They see it as both a dream house and an investment.”

Aside from low taxes and warm weather, one reason Michael Tennenbaum, an investor in his 80s, chose to build his modern home in Puerto Rico was that he could get a design-forward project approved quickly there.

“One of the difficulties of starting a multiyear project when you’re older is you get anxious about finishing it,” he says.

“He’s built houses before, so he knew what he wanted,” says Scott Lee, president and principal of SB Architects, who designed Mr. Tennenbaum’s house. The house, which cost $10 million to build, is more than just a place to live. It is a statement, something Mr. Lee sees a lot with older clients. “They’re not just resting on their laurels,” he says. “They want what’s cool, modern and hip.”

New York real-estate developer David Walentas, 82, knew exactly what he wanted when he set off to build a recently finished, $15 million, concrete-and-steel house on the beach in Southampton, N.Y. He drew on the lessons learned from building other new homes over the years. Mr. Walentas, whose wife, Jane Walentas, died in the house from cancer in July, says he feels safe there. “I’ll die here too,” he says.

Architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien of New York-based Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners tried to talk Mr. Walentas out of concrete floors. “A concrete floor for anybody all the time is not always comfortable,” says Ms. Tsien. Mr. Walentas didn’t want to compromise his vision, but they convinced him to put in an elevator. The architects noticed that many of their older clients are similarly determined. “They’re less afraid of what people think, because who cares at that point,” says Ms. Tsien.

Staying out of assisted living was a strong motivator for Dennis Shaw, 74, a retired trucking executive who still works as an investor, and his wife, Evelyn Shaw, 74, to build a house in Fayetteville, Ark. They chose a modern design by local architect Marlon Blackwell in part because Mr. Shaw always wanted a one-level contemporary house. They also felt a modern home would be easier to live in, with wider hallways and fewer small spaces to clean. The hardest part of the 4,200-square-foot, three-bed, 2½-bath project, which cost about $350 a square foot, was getting rid of all the stuff they had accumulated over the years that wouldn’t fit in their new home. “Once you let go, there’s a sense of freedom,” says Mr. Shaw.

Rob Widmeyer and Kathy Lynch, both in their 70s, were able to put their new house to the test soon after they moved in two years ago. Ms. Lynch broke her foot and had to be in a wheelchair for a couple of months. They had put in an elevator when they built the 1,550-square-foot, two-bedroom, modern floating house on Lake Union in Seattle for around $900,000. They have also found the new house easier to maintain. “There’s nothing to fix,” says Ms. Lynch.

Sometimes fixing things is a good way to keep active, say Joan Wellman, 70, and Tom Robinson, 69. They recently moved full time to a home they completely renovated in Eastern Washington’s Methow Valley, where they cross country ski, hike and mountain bike several times a week. The house requires little maintenance but living in a rural environment has been more physically challenging. The couple joke that while other people buy an RV or a boat in retirement, they buy irrigation pipes. “It’s really good for us at our age to have to move around,” says Ms. Wellman.


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