Entries in housing (2)


It's 2015. Where's My Hoverboard?

The "Back to the Future" franchise offers prophetic insights about the real estate industry, predicting the scope of change over three decades.

A time span of 30 years—more substantial than mere decades, but more manageable than a century—provides useful perspective on technological innovation. Now that three decades have passed since time travelers Marty McFly and Dr. Emmett Brown traveled to 2015 in "Back to the Future Part II," let's look back at the future they saw and examine how their predictions have played out in real life, particularly at the notable implications for the real estate industry.

Set in fictional Hill Valley, Calif., in 1985, both the first and second "Back to the Future" films use the 30-year conceit to explore how life has changed since 1955 and how it might transform by 2015. The first movie was a smoother, more critically acclaimed film, perhaps because 1955 was relatively easy to recreate. In "Back to the Future Part II," director Robert Zemeckis had to dream up what life would be like in 2015. Back when the sequel was released in 1989, the late film critic Gene Siskel called it "very gadget-filled and really noisy." Sound familiar?

Indeed, real life in 2015 shares many similarities to the future envisioned by Zemeckis and cowriter Bob Gale. Hill Valley's retro "Cafe 80's" diner offers a colorful background, but it's doubtful the set builders knew the real 2015 would see leg warmers back on store shelves or record companies releasing new albums on cassette tapes. When the film poked fun at executive producer Steven Spielberg with a "holoplex" movie theater ad for "Jaws 19," was it simply looking for an easy cultural reference or did it somehow predict the 3-D sequel-mania that would grip Hollywood in the first decades of the 21st century?

Setting aside the prognostication prowess of the filmmakers, let's put on a real estate lens to see the marketing marvels and property-related technologies that jumped from Hill Valley to real life.

That tongue-in-cheek ad for "Jaws 19" contains clues about the future of advertising. In the movie, McFly fears he'll be swallowed up by a holographic shark that dives down from a billboard above him. After setting aside the creature’s eerie resemblance to Katy Perry’s "left shark" (the costumed character who grabbed the nation’s attention during the 2015 Super Bowl halftime show), we know that individually targeting one customer in the crowd is already possible in the real 2015. Real estate pros are learning how beacon technology can help them zero in on potential clients passing by For Sale signs (see "Real Estate and the Internet of Things"). So the idea that McFly could be targeted by the makers of “Jaws 19” isn’t too far off from today’s hyperfocused marketing approaches.

Using technology less menacing than a giant shark leaping from a sign, real estate pros may soon be able to develop marketing that features 3-D moving images—perhaps two satisfied clients shaking hands, a new development coming to life, or a key turning in a front-door lock—on a billboard-sized scale. Austrian startup TriLite Technologies recently partnered with the Vienna University of Technology to demonstrate how the human brain can be convinced it’s seeing mobile 3-D vignettes without the use of special eyewear. Instead of flat pixels, they’ve developed the "trixel" with lasers and a movable mirror that deflects light to both the left and right eyes, which results in an image that appears to move in three dimensions. The researchers' published paper noted that such a device far outshines current glasses-free 3-D technology in terms of both image quality and visibility in sunlit conditions. They say the trixels could deliver to a large crowd with "theoretically up to several thousand 3-D viewing zones, and maximum 3-D viewing distances of up to 70 meters." Such technology could offer forward-thinking agents and brokerages the opportunity to stand out from competitors who simply paste their head shots on a billboard.

The house of the future also makes a debut in the movie, as the McFlys’ fictional domicile features many smart-home gadgets with counterparts in the real 2015. For example, the house’s security system uses fingerprint technology to open doors. While many real estate pros have yet to see biometric locks on their own listings, this form of keyless home entry is offered by a number of companies (though the real 2015 hasn’t gotten rid of doorknobs as they have in Hill Valley).

The home also has programmable lights that respond to each resident’s presence, an increasingly common offering in today’s smart-home packages. We may laugh when Grandma McFly pops a tiny pizza in the "rehydrator" and removes a bubbling, full-sized dinner a few seconds later. But the real kitchens of 2015 are seeing water emerge as the star of a new, faster cooking appliance known as the combi-steam oven.

The McFlys' televisions are the flat-screened version we’re used to, and they easily accommodate videoconferencing and multiple programs on one display. Even some of the content is similar; after the termination of a videoconferencing call, one television reverts to an image of a famous Van Gogh self-portrait as a kind of high-tech screen saver. Real estate pros can use the ArtKick app to class up open houses with similar technology that displays fine art on their listings' TVs.

While many other inventions we commonly see today are featured in "Back to the Future Part II"—Marty's kids take phone calls and watch videos on goggles that could be mistaken for a 1980s version of Google Glass—there are implausible moments. The McFly house laughably has fax machines in every room that spew dot-matrix-style documents. As the chattering classes have noted, we never got the hoverboards we were promised (when released last year, the Hendo hoverboard—which works only on copper-plated surfaces—was panned as a poor substitute for the movie gadget that allowed Marty McFly to skateboard on air), to say nothing of flying cars. Perhaps the most far-fetched claim of all: the Chicago Cubs heading to the 2015 World Series. But no one ever claimed baseball fans of the future would be immune from that especially cruel joke.


Adapting or Building a Home for Universal Access

As the mother of a disabled son, I feel I am uniquely qualified* to help you with your questions about modifying or building a home for universal access. Over the years, my own home has been modified to allow our son greater access to all of our activities. Even though my situation may be different from yours, many of us will experience a disability at least temporarily. All of us can have accidents and find ourselves or a family member on crutches, using a walker or even a wheelchair. So how would you get yourself up stairs or through a narrow door? How would you make dinner, do laundry or use the bathroom? Planning for the unexpected can help us continue living full and productive lives. All it takes is a little preparation, some expert help and a vision.

It is also true that the demand for accessible housing will continue to rise. Most of us want to live independent lives and we want the ability to take care of ourselves so we can remain active and less dependent. Traditional builders have never really understood the needs of the disabled so finding a home that is accessible is difficult. Most homes can be modified to accommodate your needs and physical capabilities. If your needs are greater than a few simple fixes then building an accessible home may be your answer.

So what makes a home accessible? It boils down to the ability to enter and move around without obstacles. When we visit friends and family, the first difficulty we encounter are the front steps and narrow doorways. A wheelchair needs at least a 36” opening but a 42” or better will enable the user to easily get in the house. Once inside, plan on converting those narrow 24” doors to 32”, 36” or better. Stairs are really difficult to maneuver. Platforms are a sounder investment. They also make a beautiful entrance to a home.

Another alternative is the wheelchair ramp. The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a “ramp as any part of a wheelchair-accessible route to a building with a slope greater than 1 inch of rise for every 20 inches of length. The guidelines require that ramps be constructed with the least possible degree of slope. The maximum rise allowed for a ramp is 30 inches. In new construction, ramps can rise at no more than the rate of 1 inch or rise for every 12 inches of run.” There are ready-made ramps available if you have a temporary situation to deal with, but make sure you have adequate space to allow for the run.

At my house we integrated landscaping pathways as means of access. Since landscaping does not fall under the code, the slope can be slightly steeper and more aesthetic to the house. We also incorporated shade areas to encourage lingering. Our son is extremely heat sensitive and burns easily so shade is very imortant to his well being. This open pavillion in our backyard provides him with shade, sound and the oppurtunity to partipate in family functions. Talk with a qualified landscaper to determine the best design for your needs.

Inside, doorways need to be enlarged to an opening at least 32” wide but 36” wide is really preferable. A typical wheelchair needs a 5’ turning radius to move and turn freely. Going down a hallway and into a room like a bedroom or bathroom you need to make sure you can turn the chair and get through the door without a problem. The door itself needs to swing flush against a wall. An offset door hinge can increase the width about 2” and is often enough to allow a wheelchair or walker to pass through. We use pocket doors with great success since they slide directly between the walls and open the doorway up completely.

Kitchens are difficult for people in wheelchairs to access. Sometimes the removal of lower base cabinets will help to provide access, but lowering the counter to desk height, installing pull out shelves or drawers, the use of a lazy susan in cabinets and even adding a pull out or drop down shelf can help. Just remember to relocate electrical receptacles, garbage disposal and exhaust fan switches to the front of the cabinet or counter.

In the bedroom make the space your own by adding dimmers near your bedside, installing low pile carpeting or adding wood floors, placing motion detecting sensors in the areas between your bedroom and bathroom and even adding electric window coverings that you can control from one location in the room. If you need an electric bed, make sure you have an accessible outlet near where the bed is placed. For your closet, enlarge the opening and install adjustable shelves and rods to accommodate your specific needs. Consider adding a light in the closet to make it easier

The final obstacle in any home for universal design is the bathroom. There are a number of considerations to take into account when designing the room.

  • Toilets: the average residential toilet is 14” to 16” high. A better choice would be a comfort height toilet, which measures 17” to 19” high. A taller toilet makes easier to transfer from a seating position to another. It is also easier on the legs. An elongated seat is another good option. The shape is more natural to the human body and is more comfortable overall. A soft close lid, which is another option, is a nice to have when remodeling.
  • Sinks and Faucets: a typical sink is placed in a vanity and is not usually wheelchair friendly. Although pedestal sinks look great, there are not many options when it comes to height. The best answer is to install a wall mounted sink at your preferred height. For the faucet look at replacing all with a single lever and install an anti scald feature to protect you and your family.
  • Bathtubs and Showers: a bathtub can be extremely hazardous. Transferring from a wheelchair to a tub is very difficult. Getting out of a wet tub back into the wheelchair is even harder. The solution is the replace the tub with a shower. There are prefabricated molded acrylic/fiberglass shower units that fit into the space of the tub area. Another option is to build a custom shower with grab bars, seating and slip resistant flooring. Showers can be built with a curb or without, also known as a roll-in shower. There are problems associated with each design so make sure to check with your architect or builder to make the right decision based on your needs, your room configurations and your home.

 Finding a contractor familiar with universal design can be challenging and frustrating. I have assembled a team of qualified architects, builders and designers who are well versed in designing for accessibility. When we find the perfect house for you, I can call in the team to give you advice about how to make your house the right home for your special needs.

 *Disclaimer: These are my own personal recommendations, a qualified, licensed archetect and conractor should be consulted prior to the start of any project. All Township Building Codes must be observed.