The Flaw with the 'Forever' House

place planning Mar 01, 2023

The Wall Street Journal’s Real Estate section often profiles high-end homes that are extraordinarily distinctive. Earlier this year, the section profiled a couple who moved from the Washington DC area to Duke Forest in Durham, North Carolina. Spending most of their lives living across the world in a variety of homes, they designed and built the house as their ‘forever’ home.

The home is gorgeous. The wooded property is set on 10 acres with a 5,000 square foot house broken into four wings. Light abounds with various views into the forest from the kitchen to the bedrooms. The design motif is practical (all one story), livable and attractive. The center point is the open kitchen with walnut cabinets, oak floors and a fir ceiling, a zinc backsplash, steel beams painted dark and views out glass walls and windows to the natural setting. It is understandable that the boomer couple feels like they are ‘finally home.’


A thoughtfully designed home placed amidst a forest (Source: WSJ)


Can Any House Deliver on the “Forever” Promise?


Despite the evocative feeling of ‘home’ and the design sensibilities aligned with universal design principles, the house might collapse under the expectations of being a ‘forever’ home. Forever implies that it is the right home under all future conditions. No home can confidently deliver on such a promise because things inevitably change.


People Change


First, personal preferences and needs change. 10 acres of natural and landscaped forest area is beautiful, but it also takes energy and resources to maintain. The desire to keep up with tending to the surroundings may wane over time. For a couple that is used to traveling and living in different places, they may become wanderlust and thirst for a change. Just because. The distance to neighbors creates privacy but also social isolation. Such isolation may be less attractive in the future. And, of course, health needs may change and necessitate a reevaluation of home.


Places Change


Places change, too. Maybe the neighborhood becomes less safe and they feel vulnerable in a remote setting. Perhaps climate change increases the odds of fire risk or makes spending time outside less desirable. Maybe the state of North Carolina enacts changes in tax policy that is onerous to people of their income bracket.


These stairs may not be desirable forever (Source: WSJ)


No Harm in Adding Longevity to Your Home


While the term ‘forever’ may be problematic because it is unrealistic, the idea of designing a home for a longer life is a good one. It is a pity when someone loves their home and their home doesn’t love them back. Certain design elements, such as having a master bedroom on the first floor and modifications to a bathroom to minimize fall risks, can be sensible and effectively extend the life of a home. These elements may even offer resale benefits with less than 4% of the housing stock in the U.S. designed for people with even moderate mobility challenges.


Being Realistic Leads to Better Planning


The couple should be praised for their passion, creativity, and attention to detail to build their home in the woods of North Carolina. And they should embrace the joy their home offers today. At the same time, they should recognize that – even with careful planning – their home will likely fall short of being a forever home given the variety of potential outcomes in life. Being realistic may not be romantic but it leads to better planning. And, In the Age of Longevity, wise planning may be the most important asset to optimize the odds of thriving for the long haul.


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