Habitat for Humanity builds first homes for seniors

Posted: Tuesday, June 05, 2001

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Except for a common garden planted between them, the two newest homes in Easton Meadow subdivision resemble their modest, single-story neighbors.

But there are subtle differences. There are no stairs inside or out. Doorways are wider. Wall outlets are higher. Kitchen cabinets are lower. The bathrooms are larger and the numbers on the thermostat dials are about an inch in height.

Americus, Ga.-based Habitat for Humanity International and its 1,600 affiliates have erected more than 100,000 volunteer-built homes over the past quarter century. But these are the first ''designed by, for and built by seniors,'' said Scott Busby, past president of the East Tennessee chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

''It has taken the concept of handicapped accessibility and made it more adaptable,'' he said. ''The house designs are flexible so seniors will be able to age in place.''

Michael Willard, Habitat director of program enhancement, praised Knoxville Habitat for ''showing how folks can work together and form partnerships to meet critical needs of our seniors.''

Two competing hospitals with active geriatric programs, Baptist Health System and St. Mary's Health System, each contributed $20,000 to sponsor the homes, which will be sold to their new Habitat owners for $40,000 and financed with 20-year, no-interest mortgages.

A national panel of architects picked the winning design from 10 entries submitted by architects in Busby's East Tennessee chapter. Each architectural team included at least one senior member.

Ultimately, two designs were selected, one by Martella Associates and the other by Ross/Fowler, both of Knoxville, so Habitat built one of each.

Pat Wallace, a 58-year-old great grandmother and greeter at Wal-Mart, will soon move into one of them. Wallace invested 500 hours of ''sweat equity'' into her home and other Habitat homes to be eligible. After raising six children on her own and a lifetime living in apartments, she is ready for a home of her own.

''Thank God,'' she said. ''I said if I ever had a house He would make a way for me to have it.''

Sandy Jones, 52, and her 12-year-old son will move in next door. Jones works at Sertoma Center, an agency that helps the mentally impaired, and also has never owned her own home.

The home plans will be available to all Habitat affiliates through the national office. Built on a 1,000-square-foot, rectangular, concrete-slab foundation, the homes have two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room and a central bathroom large enough for a wheelchair.

One plan puts the dining area with the kitchen and gives the living room a vaulted ceiling. The other adds the dining space to the living room and removes a wall.

Both have porches, an open-floor plan and give someone standing at the kitchen sink a three-way view out the side, front and rear of the house -- for a sense of security and community.

James Whaley, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Aging, said it's important for older people to not become ''isolated in their house even if their mobility is limited.''

''Just by sitting near the window or getting out on the porch they can still feel like they are part of the community and can participate in community life,'' said Whaley, who also served on the design jury.

Clyde Jones, one of dozens of retirees working on the houses since February, said the homes' amenities aren't just for the handicapped or the elderly.

''Some of that makes sense for all of us,'' said Jones, who at 71 isn't ready to include himself in the seniors category. ''I could live in one myself and be perfectly content.''

Wallace said her home will serve her needs now and later.

''If I get to where I have to be taken care of, somebody can come and help take care of me and it won't be that I can't afford to at least stay in my house to be home,'' she said.

She said she cared for her late mother, and knows the traumas of older people having to move when they are too ill to fend for themselves.

''I think that is why a lot of people give up, because they don't know where they are and they don't know anybody around them,'' Wallace said.

That won't be the case in her new home, she said.


On the Net:

Habitat for Humanity: http://www.habitat.org/

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