Designing Healthy Housing

Margaret P. Calkins, Ph.D., is an architectural researcher with a passion for creating buildings that are comfortable for people in all states of health.

She is particularly attuned to the needs of the elderly, whose eyesight or balance may be poor or who may live with dementia.

Thinking about the edges of stairs, chairs, and countertops and how they help the elderly see and be sure-footed is part of her job. Calkins, who has consulted for many healthcare institutions and elderly housing communities, is coordinator of the Healthcare Design program for Kent State’s College of Architecture & Environmental Design.

Margaret P. Calkins

Nearly 20 years after she earned her Ph.D. in architecture from the University of Wisconsin and began consulting for care communities, there is “a lot of work still to be done in senior living communities,” she said. “When you think about environmental issues for people who are not completely able-bodied or able-minded, there are layers of approaches you can take.”

Small Changes Make a Difference

Sometimes, subtle changes that don’t scream “handicapped person” can make a big difference, physically and psychologically, to elders, who may be sensitive about their diminishing capabilities in a culture where youth and vigor are valued.

Colorful, contemporary-looking grab bars, better ambient lighting and contrasting colors can make a huge difference in comfort, she has found.  “Getting people to understand the variety of things you can do that are so helpful but don’t make it look like you’re handicapped” is part of the process of design for this age group, said Calkins, who earned her undergraduate degree at Kenyon College in psychology.

At Kenyon a course in the psychology of aesthetics first piqued her interest in designing environments. She took courses at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and got advice from her oldest brother, who was an architect in Cambridge. She wanted to specialize in the impact of design on people rather than design buildings. He convinced her that she would have more credibility with an advanced degree in architecture rather than psychology.

“I wanted to do research to give architects better information on how to design buildings,” she said.

Basing Buildings on Research

After writing a thesis on building design guidelines for people with dementia and earning her master’s degree in 1986, she went to work for Heather Hill, a nursing home in Chardon, Ohio, where a prototype memory-care, assisted living building was being planned that would rely on research-based guidelines.

She learned that the NIA was looking to fund more studies with businesses, so while she earned her Ph.D., she also incorporated a business and began consulting for health care communities. She has had $6 million worth of grant funding, much of it from the National Institutes of Health, along the way. A nonprofit research arm of her company, the IDEAS Institute, has also been awarded foundation funding from the Alzheimer’s Association and others.

Calkins was one of the first to focus on environments for people living with dementia. “It was a wide open door and I ran through,” she said.