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University of Calgary looks for housing solutions for an aging population

It’s estimated that by 2030 one in four Canadians will be over the age of 65 and the growing seniors’ population will account for 80 per cent of housing demand in Canada.

These statistics are causing alarm among experts who believe Canada’s house-building industry is underprepared for the consequences and demands of the ageing home buyer and the families supporting them.

Now a team from the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary has teamed up with the Faculty of Medicine and the Institute for Public Health to design and test a series of aging-in-place laneway house prototypes – which they hope will ultimately be brought to market.

“We’re starting the second prototype in a couple of weeks, based on feedback from realtors, healthcare professionals, home builders and seniors” says Professor John Brown, Associate Dean of the Faculty.

Prototype one is an impressive 400-square-foot home, which was built inside the faculty over 12 weeks by a team of 10 students.

Mock-up of a home interior with alterations geared to senior residents. (Junette Huynh / University of Calgary)

“It was built to demonstrate medical efficacy, functionality as a home and to determine if people liked it and would pay for it. We’re trying to look at what a comprehensive solution looks like.”

The compact home has a long list of features designed to make life not only easier but also safer for seniors including handrails, lit flooring, easy-access storage and reconfigurable furniture; all finished with aesthetics and design in mind.

“Grab bars and ramps are things which are considered essential in seniors’ homes but they’re ugly and they don’t make you feel good. We wanted to achieve an invisible prosthetic with this house; or at least a prosthetic with a high design value.”

In addition to practical supports for the physical challenges of aging, the home also features a smart screen with memory prompts for things like medication and a webcam for remote doctor consultations. The refrigerator features a smart memo board which could turn written grocery lists and reminders into electronic notes for caregivers.

Mr. Brown says the second prototype will include even more advanced technology including a weight scale built into the floor to alert caregivers on rapid weight gain or loss; both signs of potentially serious illness. There will also be movement sensors on the floor to raise a response to a change in daily routine as well as plug-and-play modules for medical equipment like oxygen and dialysis.

As with grab bars and ramps, Mr. Brown’s team are working hard to ensure technology is integrated into the home in a way that’s sensitive to the homeowner.

A student in the University of Calgary's Faculty of Environmental Design wears an 'age suit' which simulates some of the physical symptoms of old age. (Junette Huynh / University of Calgary)

“A home isn’t a medical facility; it’s a domestic space. And when we’re developing products and technology for aging in place, we can’t lose sight of the fact there are certain aesthetic, cultural and functional requirements that we need to respect. There’s a level of dignity that people shouldn’t have to give up in old age.”

Students working on the project also got a lesson in empathic design by wearing an age suit, which simulates some of the physical symptoms of old age for the wearer.

“Our students are all in their 20s so it’s hard for them to appreciate the challenges of aging” says Mr Brown. “The suit makes the joints stiffer, the body heavier, the feet unsteady and impairs eyesight. All of which helped the team better understand, and design for, the end user of the house.”

With prototype one complete, the project team facilitated a thorough process of testing, which will drive the design and build of prototype two.

“One of the things that medicine does very well is that it rigorously tests before bringing something to market. Architects don’t tend to do that, for a regular house it’s not necessary. But evidence-based testing is important in an aging-in-place house and it’s also vital if we’re going to change home builders’ approach to this.”

So far, 150 people have toured the prototype from medical professionals and older adults to realtors and house builders. Eye-tracking software was installed in the home to assist in gathering meaningful and conclusive results.

The team working on the aging-in-place prototypes wore aging suits to help them sensitively design homes. (University of Calgary)

“The housing industry is huge, but not a lot of research and development goes on. What’s built is largely based on what sold last time; innovation is slow. The problem is that our seniors’ population is changing fast.

“We see this as an opportunity, as an academic institute, to do some of that research and development for the housing industry in order to make a big leap for this kind of housing.”

The consequences of not making that leap, according to Mr. Brown, are potentially very costly.

“If we don’t establish proven, affordable and desirable in-community solutions, our health-care system is going to be overrun and we’re going to be building things we can’t afford for people who don’t want to live there.”

For Mr. Brown, laneway housing offers “a suite of options” giving aging adults the flexibility to rent out their home and remain within the grounds, move to live alongside adult children or rent a small space from a third party and continue to live in their community.

Rendering of a home with alterations geared to senior residents. (University of Calgary Faculty of Environmental Design)

The project’s potential as a solution in the real world and not just an academic exercise will become clearer by prototype three, which is slated for fall 2016. Currently, Mr. Brown is in discussions with a builder on partnering with the next prototype build and the project at large; for now he remains tight lipped about which builder.

“We’re hopeful that the third iteration will be a fully functional home with lived-in testing, which would allow us to produce a batch of say 50 of them as stage four. We’d then be looking to commercialize it with a builder who could deploy it.”

While Mr. Brown says he’s unable to disclose what the future cost to buy might be for one of the homes, he maintains that “affordable and attainable” will be key to success.

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