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Imperfection, an invitation to act
Finding creative fixes where you might not expect them
Imperfection is an invitation to act.
I live in an imperfect neighborhood with imperfect people in an imperfect house. People work hard. They struggle at various degrees to provide for the wellbeing of themselves and their families in the competitive and costly San Francisco Bay Area. They talk loud, they laugh, they argue, they play. I get woken up some nights by owls hooting and other nights by guns firing (far away). My house needs repair, my plants need pruning and I have been talking about updating my kitchen for years.
I grew up in a country which was more orderly, more humane - at least on the surface. People had a more balanced life than most Americans; work was not all encompassing, but just one aspect of life. Daily life was less stressful because most people did not have to worry how to afford housing or healthcare.
But I chose imperfection when I moved to the Bay Area from Austria in 1984 for school. I would not have been able to define it then, but I see it now - I welcome imperfection and the opportunities it opens up. Don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of things which are broken in this country that need fixing. We see it every day in the streets. But that’s not the imperfection I’m talking about. I am talking about the fixes and creative solutions that may not meet the highest professional or aesthetic standards, but often work just fine. As they say, ‘something is better than nothing.’ In the built environment, imperfect ‘interventions’ can be quite beautiful and even playful if they are done with an appreciation for the problem at hand.
I take the same approach when I encourage participants in our Aging 360 workshops to experiment with small changes in their homes. This playful attitude lowers the threshold for action.
The high standard of an aging-ready home is unachievable for most. According to the US Census Bureau 9 out of 10 homes nationwide are not aging-ready. Their definition of an aging-ready home is a home with a bathroom and bedroom on the 1st floor, a step-free entry and one accessible feature, such as a safety bar in the bathroom. In the hilly San Francisco Bay Area step-free entries are, of course, rare. Yet those same hills afford us with views and many participants in our workshop name their view as a reason why they love their home and want to continue to live in it as long as possible.
I have come to consider views as one of the most important qualities of age-friendly living. They keep us connected to the world beyond, from nature to people, and animate our daily lives as we age and start to spend more time at home. On the other hand, reduced mobility, falling and trouble with balance present challenges for most people at some stage in their life and the use of stairs often becomes frightening. So, if you want to continue to live in a home with a view and you can’t take your stairs away or install an elevator, how can you at least make them safer?
A participant in our recent workshop decided to tackle this challenge and chose her stair as a project for improvement and adaptation.The stair connects the main living level to her garage and laundry area. She recently slid and fell and, as a result, felt afraid of using her stairs. She assessed that the problems were poor lighting, carpeting, which was difficult to keep clean, shopping bags hanging from the banister and only one handrail. She needed to continue to use these stairs, so she came up with a plan for action. She removed the carpet and clutter and ordered inexpensive, battery-powered LED lights with a motion sensor. Encouraged by the difference these first improvements made, she has hired a handyman to install a second rail. Last but not least, she added delight to her stairs and decorated the walls with posters from the theater productions which she had staged during her career.
Stairs not only afford us views and keep us connected to the world, they can also support healthy aging as inexpensive in-home exercise machines. In a community center for older adults, I designed stairs that invited clients to use them instead of the elevator. They have soft, athletic flooring, a swooping guardrail, excellent lighting, and a stair counter so clients can keep track of their steps.The ‘Fit Stair’ as it’s now known soon became everybody’s favorite feature of the building.
Treads, Rise, Nosing: The typical step height or riser is 7”. A step should not be higher than 8” and not lower than 4” (trip hazard!). The typical depth of a tread is 11”. The nosing should overhang 1”. All steps have to be the same height with some leeway for the lowest step when it lands on a sloped surface which is often the case in San Francisco. Single steps are a real danger because they interrupt our walking cadence. I have done ‘slow’ stairs on some of my projects with a 6” riser in order to..... It is hard to believe but 1” makes it less strenuous to climb a stair.
Railings: In buildings for the public or publicly funded projects, every stair has to have a rail on both sides. In residential projects, only one rail is required. The rail height as prescribed per code is between 34” and 38” above the nosing. If your staircase is open and not between two wall, you also need a 42” guard rail.
I believe in choice:
Most stairs have a rail on at least a rail on one side. IfWhen you add a second rail, have fun with it - consider using a different material, or maybe even a piece of driftwood.
The building code asks for rails to have a 1.5 “inch to 2 “inch diameter grip size because this is generally good for most hands, but this is your own house so you can also experiment with the size of the grip and can even maybe vary it along the length of the rail such when you are using a piece from nature. Variations in texture and grip size will certainly keep you on your toes as you walk up and down your stairs.
Take your cues from stairs in public buildings, they have much more stringent requirements for safety than private homes
It really helps when walking down a stair to call out the edge of a step with a contrasting strip or nosing. There are rubber and metal nosings available in different colors and finishes which are easy to install.
Some other thoughts:
Make your stairs the focus of your attention. Think ‘theatrical’, make them as ‘grand’ and irresistible as possible. That means not only excellent lighting and rails on both sides but also something beautiful to look at as you use your stairs, a special painting, souvenirs and more.