The New Togetherness | New England Home

 New England Home July/August 2008


Trade Secrets: The New Togetherness


by: Louis Postel


It’s a thought, a revelation, that warms you like July sun peeking under the blind. “Let’s invite Mom to move in with us!” Your significant other blinks to attention, speechless. “I just worry so much about her all alone out there in Nome,” you add. But this generous impulse is quickly followed by another, welcome as an April Fool’s Day ice cube down the back: the beautiful new guest suite is up two flights. How is dear Mom going to get up there? Everything will have to be reconfigured!

While architecture and design are supposed to look solid and permanent, homeowners are constantly exposed to the vicissitudes of time. Clients in their mid-forties to sixties find themselves wading deep in the generational river – adult children staying on, aging parents coming back. The design challenge is to make it all work out. Architect Frank Shirley of Cambridge, Massachusetts, specializes in making it all work out for people who own old houses. His speech, his entire manner, is arrestingly different; mild, but not, as one might first think, Southern. “Western Pennsylvanian – my wife thinks I talk funny, “he says. Shirley often works with grown children who are trying to accommodate parents who can no longer live independently. “We’ve been converting family rooms and dens, occasionally adding decks and expanding powder rooms to three-quarter baths,” he says. “What you want is for the seniors’ space to have an adjacency to the main living space but not to be right in the middle of it, not in the main swirl.”

Interior designer Karen Clarke co-chairs one of the best-kept educational secrets in the country: the interior design program at New England School of Art & Design at Suffolk University. Her students live and breathe “Universal Design,” design that enables everyone to live as independently as possible. Like Shirley, Clarke is all for adding decks. A plethora of similar, and seemingly minor, details add up to make a big difference, she point out. “Levers are easier than knobs for arthritic hands. And seniors tend to watch a lot of TV, so a little niche or TV sitting area can be a good thing. “Very important, she adds, is to “bring some reminders of where they used to live: a chest of drawers, a lamp.” Artwork should come too, but not in wholesale lots, cautions Newton, Massachusetts, consultant Jacqui Becker. Cross-generational transfers of whole collections rarely succeed.

A native of Madrid, Spain, Caroline Morson speaks fluent Spanish and enough Italian to feel at home shopping the huge annual Salone del Mobile furniture fair in Milan every year. Along with her husband Greg, Morson started her eponymous showroom in Boston’s Back Bay more than ten years ago. Now she has relocated to the city’s Leather District. “I couldn’t disagree more than Italian furniture is too low slung for seniors,” she says. “Seating has truly evolved in the past ten years, particularly from within. If you took a cross-section of one of our pieces, you’d find at least three different densities of foam: one molded for under your knees, a second firmer foam for under your seat and an even firmer foam to support your back. The down holds firmly in place; they no longer need fluffing. As for height and depth, there’s a fairly standard ratio: the lower the seat, the greater the depth. When sitting or long periods a proper ratio keeps your legs in a reverse L as opposed to an uncomfortable V.”

Architect Milford Cushman of Stowe, Vermont, specializes in rural: rural Vermont, rural Minnesota, rural Virgin Islands. When his clients pick a piece of property to build on, it’s invariably because something about that site moves them emotionally; there’s a soul connection. “It’s as though the site selected them rather than the other way around,” says Cushman. Clients envision another way of living life, one that is perhaps deeper, richer and, quite often, inclusive of other generations, older and younger. “I’m always asking my clients, ‘How long do you expect to be here for? Will this property be part of an estate? Are your parents going to join you?’ “

Sustainability and a sense of the generation nature of things go hand in hand. Architect Sandra Vitzthum (pronounced “Fitzoom”) of Montpelier, Vermont, had an interesting conversation with her Marvin rep about sustainability and rates of return. With the help of double-paned, R3 window, Vitzthum got a new construction Greek Revival down to 175 gallons of oil per year – and that’s before installing solar. Vitzthum has her own personal stake in sustainability for future generations. Her three young boys represent 10 percent of all surviving male Vitzthums, a dwindling Prussian line that manages to gather annually in Bonn or Stuttgart.

Landscape architect Jennifer Jones is a principal of Carol R. Johnson Associates in Boston, a world-travelling firm with projects occupying rarefied ground. Oil-rich, culture-magnet Shams Park on Al Reem Island in Abu Dhabi is the latest example. Jone’s prebono work for the Maranyudo Secondary School for Girls in Nyamata, Rwanda, however, has the most bearing on the present discussion. Reforesting an entire country bit by bit, replanting an entire “lost” generation of young people, shows how designers can help even when it comes to meeting the challenges of the world’s violent upheavals.” Though the length of each day hardly varies so close to the equator, Rwanda has two rainy seasons, which create different seasons of bloom. Our plant list is designed to bloom all year,” says Jones, who brought both of her grown daughters to celebrate the new campus funded almost entirely by Boston women.

On opening night, 750 visitors walked through designer Leslie Fine’s chartreus – and teal-hued family room at the Boston Design Center’s Dream Home 2008 installation. More than half the visitors looked as though they wished to walk no further . . . and to just move in. Fine’s idea for mounting a flat screen and speakers illustrates what Karen Clarke has observed about seniors watching long stretches of TV and how it’s important to design in little niches and sitting rooms. Instead of leaving screen and speakers plastered randomly on the wall, Fine set them in a rhythm of jazzy box shapes she had specially made for the purpose.

Beverly, Massachusetts-based designer Allison Hughes transported us through several generations at the College Club of Boston’s “Makeover Challenges,” in which she had two week and a tight budget to remodel one of the venerable club’s guest rooms. Hughes drew inspirational from the Tisch Library at Tufts, an international research library set high on a hill with a commanding view of Boston’s skyline. Her College Club room succeeds in sharing some of the Tisch’s atmospherics: a warm space that invites hours of reflection while at the same time offering a window on the world. “It has a beautiful seven-foot window overlooking Commonwealth Avenue mall and that’s my focal point,” Hughes says. “I mounted the window treatment outside its nineteenth-century molding to keep the molding exposed. I did the jabot, swags and curtain in taupe-and-white stripe to set off the richness of the chocolate brown walls.”

Boston architects Meejin Yoon and Eric Höweler work and live together. A widely circulated account in the New York Times of the promising couple’s 2002 wedding singled out Höweler’s book, 1, 001 Skyscraper, from Princeton Architectural Press as well as Yoon’s professorship at MIT. “We agree on about 99 percent of everything,” says Yoon, “but on the one percent we disagree on I think, ‘How can I be married to this person!’ “The couple tackles whatever strikes their curiosity, from “vertical gardens grown on thin layers of biodegradable felt” to Shanghai skyscrapers. One challenge the design team finds particularly intriguing is what out Höweler calls “a revers migration: empty-nester clients who are luring their adult children back home.” All this generational togetherness must surely lead to some interesting challenges. But isn’t that what great design is for?



>> He’s been using sustainable building practices for twenty-five years, and now Paul Morse, owner and president of Morse Constructions in Somerville, Massachusetts, has the certification to prove it. Morse is the first builder/remodeler in the North-east – and just the third in the national – to receive the National Association of Remodeling Industries’ Green Certified Professional designation.

>> It’s location number four for WaterSpot, whose new Providence showroom is- at 6,000 square feet-Rhode Island’s largest retail kitchen and bath showroom. The new place, a veritable fantasyland of stylish and luxurious products for kitchen and bath, is a sister to showrooms in Framingham, Massachusetts, and Westerly and Woonsocket, Rhode Island.