Eco-designer Dana Mortensen would never tell her own mother-in-law what to do, but a good part of her business involves telling other people’s parents what changes to make to be able to stay in their homes as they grow older. Once people find that perfect “location, location, location,” many are reluctant to leave, even though some features of the home may be challenging to negotiate as the homeowners age.
Mortensen, a therapist who began her career as a medical counselor helping people live full lives despite health complications, now counsels people on how to age in place and create a healthier home. She recommends changes that enable people to continue to live in the place they love, even as their lives change over time.
“Sometimes it takes a nonfamily member, a professional, to say, ‘This could be dangerous,’ ” Mortensen said. “With my training as a therapist, I have ways to word suggestions that people are more receptive to hearing.”
Partly due to the economy and partly to the influence of green, more people now stay in their homes and renovate rather than move to a new house, Mortensen said. “It’s more sustainable to work with what you already have.”
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Over her years working with the elderly and people with illnesses, Mortensen developed a holistic mind-body approach, which triggered an interest in indoor air quality and the materials put into the environment. She enrolled in Ringling College of Art & Design in Florida, earning a BFA in sustainable design. That and the LEED Accredited Professional designation she acquired through the U.S. Green Building Council equipped her to advise clients about universal design (the core principles of aging in place), green products, indoor air quality and efficient use of space.
“I look at how the interior environment assists people in their ever-changing needs, their physical, cognitive and emotional well-being, as well as family size, which can vary a lot now,” Mortensen said. “Empty-nesters might have their parents coming to live with them or their adult children returning with their own children. I look at the home as a flexible, functional space that can change as needs change.”
As an eco-designer, she has reconfigured living spaces to suit a family that has grown by a generation unexpectedly, without making the modifications permanent. Rather than add on a bedroom when married adult children returned home temporarily, Mortensen converted the dining room to a bedroom and added design details so the space didn’t feel like a dining room with a bed in it. She extended the breakfast bar in the eat-in kitchen so that even though the larger family wouldn’t all fit around the kitchen table, they still could eat together in the same area.
“I help people reorient, restructure and rearrange without making any structural changes,” she said. “I like making space flexible, re-laying-out the space to help everybody function better, but looking at the long-term, what happens when everybody leaves again.”
Improving the indoor air quality also helps people function better in their homes. Houses built before about 1970 generally have better indoor air quality because they are made of materials that outgas less. “A fire can consume a house built in 2010 faster than one built in 1965 because more of the materials and furnishings in the newer house are made from petroleum products,” she said.
To improve indoor air quality, Mortensen recommends furniture lines made of sustainable materials that have an indoor air quality rating for the fabric and foam. Some eco-conscious carpets are made of recycled fibers, but people with allergies may want to avoid carpeting altogether.
“It’s a lot easier to find sustainable products than it was even five years ago,” she said. “There is more available, and the cost has come down substantially.”
The same goes for aging in place — Mortensen has seen a dramatic increase in the types of products that help people age in place. Walk-in bathtubs, taller toilets, flooring with a high friction coefficient to reduce the risk of slipping and falling have become almost commonplace in bathroom renovations.
“We’re seeing an integration between human-centered and eco-conscious,” Mortensen said. “If it’s good for the person during their lifecycle, it will be good for the planet during its lifecycle.”
Mortensen hopes that within the next decade she can drop the “eco” prefix to what she does, that “eco” will be an inherent part of any good design.
“That’s already starting to happen,” she said.
Nancy E. Oates is a business and real estate writer in Chapel Hill. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.