Across Canada, builders and designers are turning their attention to a new housing design, Canada Mortgage and Housing’s FlexHousing concept, that adapts easily and affordably to meet the needs of all ages and abilities.

Three "hot spots" for this new design are the Canadian Centre for Housing Technology (CCHT) in Ottawa, Home 2000 on the campus of the British Columbia Institute of Technology, and the For?t Marie Victorin development at St. Nicolas, Quebec. Canadian and international visitors routinely visit these CMHC universal design housing demonstrations, and come away amazed how attention to small details can result in affordable, adaptable and accessible housing that is highly attractive and useable by everyone.

The CCHT information centre illustrates the award-winning design by Nicholas Varias and incorporates the many universal design features and adaptability that FlexHousing brings together. Meanwhile, visitors to the St. Nicolas project near Quebec City see an example of FlexHousing based on the McGill University NextHome design. This St. Nicolas FlexHouse was featured at the CMHC display at the International Housing Show in Bologna, Italy, and received many compliments from European visitors.

The world is discovering that universal design is good for everyone.

The "Inclusion by Design" conference in Montreal from June 1 to 5 will bring together universal design experts from around the world to share ideas, experiences and lessons learned. Presentations and workshops on "inclusive" or "universal" design will discuss issues and solutions related to the design of: consumer items we buy at the store; our work and living environments; our use and access to the Internet and electronic information; and something which affects us all most profoundly — our homes.

CMHC’s conference presentation, "FlexHousing: Homes that Adapt to Life’s Changes," will describe the process that led from a research study asking seniors and persons with disabilities what features they most valued in their homes, through a number of other steps, to a focus group study of home buyers at large who endorsed the FlexHousing concept as also providing them with highly desirable housing.

FlexHousing Hits the Streets
The fact that Canada’s FlexHousing concept has such wide market appeal has encouraged some of the more progressive Canadian home builders to offer FlexHousing features to new home buyers. Minto Developments, a large home builder in the Toronto and Ottawa markets, was one of the first to offer customers FlexHousing features from a checklist of options. Similarly, Guildcrest Manufactured Homes’ popular Tiger Lily model includes most of the important FlexHousing features in its "entry-level" home.

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The following features are most noteworthy and important — or, in other words, the FlexHousing "must-haves" which make FlexHousing an excellent lifestyle choice and superbly inclusive housing value.

On-grade access tells you that a FlexHouse is convenient and safe before you even set foot in the house. On-grade access is a logical feature, as climbing even a few steps to enter a home can be awkward. Getting into the house easily is important for everyone, particularly for people with children, active seniors and people with a disability.

Outside the main door, a covered entranceway should provide shelter from the elements. On each side of the door, a level, 1,500 x 1,500 mm (5’ x 5’) space provides manoeuvring room for people to come and go with bags, strollers or wheelchairs. The entrance shouldn’t have steps or tripping hazards. Doors that are 865 mm (34") or 910 mm (36") wide give a clear opening of 813 mm (32") or 865 mm (34"), the recommended minimum. The maximum height of the threshold (a strip of wood or other material forming the bottom of a doorway) should be 19 mm (3/4").

Non-slip surfaces are best for an entranceway because the floors are often wet with snow and slush in the winter months. Adequate lighting in the entranceway is important for homeowner safety, and a well-lit entrance and door with a strong lock discourage intruders. An inset window or sidelight allows residents to see who is at the door.

Unobstructed circulation around the exterior and interior of a FlexHouse is essential, and the most important functional spaces should be on the main floor. The main living level includes the kitchen, the living room, a bathroom and space that can be used either as a bedroom or home office. Stairs to other floors should have a straight run and be at least 1,100 mm (43") wide.

The home’s interior space must adapt to changing needs. To make it easy to adapt a large, main-floor bedroom into a smaller bedroom and home office, for instance, load-bearing and mechanical walls can be limited to the perimeter, and interior walls can be added as partitions. An add-in partition can be installed using the "forced-fit, no-nails" (FFNN) system. FFNN is a renovator’s technique in which only a very few positioning finish nails are used through the floor and ceiling to keep the partition wall from shifting.

These ideas and many other Flexhousing considerations are included in CMHC’s free "FlexHousing Pocket Planner" booklet.

The following list identifies some common disability-related issues and the FlexHousing features that accommodate them.

For people with reduced mobility, FlexHousing is more convenient. It offers light switches and storage at lower levels, and wider-than-normal doorways at 865 cm to 910 cm (2’ 10" to 3’ 0"). It also reduces or eliminates changes in floor level, doing away with the need for stairs and the tripping hazards they present.

Limited agility and dexterity:
People with stiff joints and hands appreciate FlexHousing features such as lever handles that are easier to grasp and turn rather than round door knobs or faucets. Stiff legs, arms and backs also make it hard to bend over to reach electrical outlets or lift something off a high shelf. FlexHousing has the answer: higher outlets and lower shelves.

Balance problems:
Slippery floors, baths and showers present a hazard for everyone, but especially for older people with poor balance. FlexHousing’s non-slip surfaces help prevent falls. In addition, people with balance, muscle and stiffness problems can climb stairs or use bathtubs more easily when aided by features such as strong, easy-to-grasp railings. To help prevent people from losing their balance when bending over to reach the controls on an electric heater or over a vanity to reach a bathtub faucet, FlexHousing locates heater controls and fixtures thoughtfully.

Reduced stamina:
People with reduced stamina have a harder time doing common household tasks like cooking. FlexHousing features that help this population perform household chores include: a low counter in the kitchen to allow a person to sit while preparing meals; reduced distance between the kitchen and eating area, so hot food does not need to be carried from one place to another; and easy-to-open doors and easy-to-use hardware and appliances.

General health issues:
Clean indoor air creates a healthy environment, particularly for people with respiratory diseases such as asthma and allergies. To help keep indoor air fresh, FlexHousing incorporates air filters and exchangers as well as windows that are easy to open. Individual area heating controls contribute to occupant health by helping people stay comfortable in their immediate surroundings. FlexHousing features also make it easier to look after someone who requires bed rest for an extended period. They provide additional space and facilities to permit easier transfer from a wheelchair to bed or bath, and bathrooms are located near the bedrooms.

Slower reflexes and response time:
People with slow reflexes and response time can be seriously burned by hot water or a hot stove element. To provide a safer home, FlexHousing includes pressure controls on showers, and stoves with front controls for reducing burns resulting from reaching over hot burners or steaming pots. In addition, smoke and heat alarms are installed throughout the house.

Sensory disabilities:
FlexHousing accommodates people with vision or hearing disabilities or reduced sense of smell. Task lighting helps people see their work better, and floors and counters, or any changes in floor level, have different-coloured surfaces to aid depth perception. To improve the home’s safety for people with a hearing disability, FlexHousing offers alarms and doorbells with lights or vibrating signals. To help people with a reduced sense of smell detect smoke, smoke alarms are installed throughout the house. FlexHousing also eliminates sharp corners and uninsulated hot water pipes. For additional security, there are home-automation features such as health-monitoring systems, panic buttons and remote-controlled communications systems.

Increased susceptibility to temperature changes:
For better health and a more comfortable environment, people must be able to easily control the indoor atmosphere. FlexHousing provides preset or automated temperature and humidity controls.

Memory loss:
To offset memory loss, FlexHousing includes appliances with automatic cutoffs and adjacent rooms with no change in floor level such as a step or a height differential between linoleum and tile floors.

Need for independence:
FlexHousing features that offer safety and convenience help anyone live independently and remain longer in their home. This, in turn, enhances the occupant’s physical and psychological well-being, and helps lower the cost of home care, medical care, personal support, social services and financial assistance. Some publications that provide information on Canada’s universal housing design solution are: "Flexhousing: Homes that Adapt to Life’s Changes," "Flexhousing: the Professionals’ Guide," "Flexhousing Pocket Planner" and, for more individual personal solutions, "Housing for Persons with Disabilities."

(For more information on CMHC’s many other publications and information products, visit our website at, ask at your favourite bookstore or home repair supply outlet, or phone CMHC toll-free at 1-800-668-2642.)