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adaptable design

Adaptable Design: How to Build a Home for a Lifetime 

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Jul 7, 2020

Selling a home can be an arduous and difficult decision. Especially for homeowners who devote a large amount of time, energy, and resources to convert their homes into sustainable, energy-efficient, and healthy spaces for themselves and their families. For instance, if you have a net-zero home with an array of solar panels and a powerful battery that offers your home an autonomous source of clean and renewable energy, it will be much harder to move away from than a house connected to the local energy grid. Similarly, a yard filled with fruit and nut trees that were planted and cared for, and now yielding an abundant organic food source for your household will also be harder to abandon than a home with a simple lawn. 

While sustainable and energy-efficient homes do command price premiums on the housing market, some homeowners commit to their sustainable home as a lifetime venture of dedication and love. For these types of homeowners, adaptable design is an essential strategy to help design sustainable homes that can remain functional, comfortable, and habitable for a lifetime.  

House Exterior

What is Adaptable Design?

An adaptable design accommodates lifestyle changes without the need to demolish or substantially modify the existing structure and services." In some cases, haphazardly designed homes will oblige homeowners to change their residence due to life situations. For example, perhaps a two-story house may have bedrooms located only on the second story and a steep set of stairs. This layout will often mean that elderly couples will need to move to a home with easier bedroom access. Similarly, a smaller house that has only one room that can practically act as a bedroom will often force young couples to change homes once children come along.

On the other hand, adaptable homes are specifically designed so that a single space or room can cover several different functions and roles throughout the lifetime of the house. A room used as a home office during the first years of occupancy be converted into a child's bedroom, a teenager's private retreat space, a family study, or an extra bedroom for a guest during different periods.

the adaptable house book
The Adaptable House by Dr. Avi Friedman

Dr. Avi Friedman is a renowned architect and writer who advocates for flexible, adaptable home design. In his book, The Adaptable House, Dr. Friedman mentions that "a conflict exists between the dynamic nature of people's lives and the homes in which they choose to reside." Instead of trying to fit their lives to what their home design allows for, Dr. Friedman believes that "a close fit between the evolving space needs of occupants and their homes ought to be simpler."

So, adaptable home design should really be a central component in designing and constructing new homes, but it rarely is. A greater sense of adaptability can also be achieved after a home is complete through a series of thoughtful renovation strategies

Adaptable design includes a wide range of approaches, considerations, and tactics. These include home dimensions, facades, interior design, surface finishes on interior walls, and individual rooms' functions. And, due to the climatic and environmental uncertainty in our future, adaptable design should also include considerations on how to make a home more resilient in the face of climate change and extreme weather events. 

Woman In Wheelchair

What Are The Benefits of Adaptable Design?

Several obvious benefits and advantages come with a flexible and adaptable home, including: 

  • An adaptable home will allow people to remain in their homes throughout aging, injury, or illness, while also providing accessibility for unexpected disabilities that might occur later in life. 
  • Even though green homes can command industry premiums on the real estate market, an adaptably designed home that allows you to stay in your home for a longer period of time will let homeowners enjoy the savings that often come with sustainable and energy-efficient upgrades and investments. For example, a solar PV system might take about a decade to pay off through your monthly energy bill savings. Since solar systems can easily last for over 25 years, staying in your home for a longer period can enable you to enjoy extended economic benefits. 
  • Flexible home design can also allow homeowners to generate income later in life. Consider the three-car garage that was so necessary when you had four teenagers living in the home. It can easily be renovated into an attached accessory dwelling unit that can be rented out for extra income in your later years. Many people use also use Airbnb to help them pay for expenses and increase the utilization of their homes. 

Factors to Be Considered When Using Adaptable Design for a Building or Renovation Project

Whether you are searching the market for your first home or are already an established homeowner looking to renovate, there are several considerations when implementing adaptable design. 

Grandmother with Grandaughter


An increasing number of people live independently into their later years, and adaptable design requires us to think about the needs of different occupants of varying ages. Older age often comes with reduced mobility. It is essential to think about how a home can be accessible when we are no longer able to climb stairs several times each day. Wider doorways and stairways, for example, allow for wheelchairs to move between rooms effortlessly.

Father with Children

Changing Family Situations

Children inevitably grow up and eventually move out. These changing family situations mean that a home might start with one or two occupants. It could then swell to 6 or 7 (depending on the number of children and extended family arrangements) and then slowly reduce to two again. Adaptable design should include flexible room functionality so that spaces can continue to be useful and valuable throughout these changing home demographics. 

Home Office

Changed Work Situations

In 2017, over 8 million people, or 5.2 percent of the working-age population, worked from home. During the 2020 pandemic, we've seen a shift to working from home, amounting to 40% of the Canadian workforce. This will only continue with the rapid growth of online and freelance jobs. Adaptable design strategies should allow for a flexible space that can be converted into a private workspace. After retirement, that same office space could easily convert into another functional space, such as a reading lounge or creative space.

A Separate (and Needed) Source of Income

As people grow older in homes where they raised a family, the extra space can often feel empty and lead to nostalgia feelings. In current housing trends, retirees who purchase new homes tend to downsize by at least 400-500 square feet. While smaller homes have a smaller carbon footprint, larger homes can also offer an additional retirement income source for older adults. Smart design from the outset can allow for a simple renovation process to turn a 2,500 square foot home into two 1,250 square foot homes. These strategies allow aging people to stay in the homes they've grown to love while also adding income in later years.

Flooded Neighborhood

Climate Change

Adaptable design also needs to consider how changing weather and climatic patterns might affect the future house structure. Incorporating resiliency strategies to protect the home from floodswildfires, and other extreme weather events is essential. As global fossil-fuel reserves dwindle, all-electric homes will be strategically positioned to stay powered by emerging renewable energy technologies. Energy-efficient homes with exceptional thermal performance will also be better prepared to deal with weather extremes.

Bottom line

Building or renovating a home requires hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions. It's important for houses that will truly last a lifetime to think about design - adaptable design - at the outset. 

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-12-02T00:28:23+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.