By J. Lynn Fraser

Technology, adaptability, sustainability and individuality — that’s what Zoomers and upcoming generations will have in common when they consider purchasing a new home or renovations in the future.

Where you used to think Boomer, now think Zoomer. What’s a Zoomer? Simply put, a Boomer with attitude. They are a group of physically active, socially engaged, environmentally and technology-savvy individualists.

For this group, gone are the days of traditional “retirement.” Sell the big family home and hightail it to warmer climates? No way. Instead, their homes have become a dynamic hub for home-based business and play. Forget downsizing, they need extra rooms for visiting family members — or for the “kids” that won’t leave. And Zoomers are discerning, design-conscious consumers who know what they want in a home — from forest-friendly recycled wood used on the great room’s floors to ensuring the place is equipped with the most up-to-date technology.

The key to the Zoomer lifestyle is staying independent and in control. They don’t want barriers to how they live — their homes are their “partners” in ensuring independent, unassisted living. Maybe they need a ramp to enter their home or grab bars in the bathroom, but they don’t want a home that looks like it’s designed for someone with one foot in the nursing home. When considering new home designs or renovations to an existing home targeting Zoomers, the concept of unassisted living should be strong both in design and discretion.

Doug Tarry, OHBA president and owner of St. Thomas-based Doug Tarry Homes, says the designs of his adult lifestyle communities apply Universal Design Principles (the concept of designing for aesthetic purposes as well as accessibility for the greatest number of people no matter their age or ability), such as wider doors, straight run stairs for lifts and extra space in the bathroom. “People want functionality of space, walk-in pantries, private ensuites and the best views,” he says. “They also want low maintenance.” But unfortunately, continues Tarry, “clients only ask about accessibility when it is needed,” which can be a mistake. It’s beneficial for builders to plant the seed early in the process in order to make the most of what’s available.

Especially for Zoomers who are determined to live an unassisted life, it’s important to plan ahead. “Few people are proactive, even though they want to stay in their homes as they age,” says Saul Berlin, president of The Construction Group in Toronto. “They wait until a catastrophic event or a medical condition happens first before they renovate for aging.”

When renovations are being considered on an existing Zoomer home, Berlin advises contractors to keep in mind that the conversions they insert should be designed so that they can be reversed with an eye toward resale.

Zoomers are a sizeable group of current homeowners in Canada. Born between the years 1946 and 1965, in 2009 they numbered 9.7 million, representing 29 percent of Canada’s population, according to research conducted by Richard Gabay, a senior researcher with CMHC’s Housing Indicators Policy and Research division. Gabay found that, based on the 2006 census, Baby Boomers/Zoomers accounted for 48 percent of family households and had a 76 percent rate of ownership with 62 percent of this group in single-detached dwellings.

Know Your Niche

Wid Chapman, a New York City architect, and Jeffrey Rosenfeld, a professor at Hofstra University, interviewed 25 homeowners in their 60s in 33 homes for their new book Unassisted Living: Ageless Homes for Later Life. The authors noted important Zoomer lifestyle niches and trends.

“Bistro Living” is one of those lifestyle niches. Think “Zoomer and the City” for this niche. The empty-nester Zoomers want easy-to-look-after loft spaces, studios and townhouses with their culture, shops, sports and gyms close by — perhaps as part of the complex in which they live. The authors found that these Zoomers want “elegant, urbane living” that’s likely just a few miles away from where they’re already living. Chapman and Rosenfeld compare these homes to homes like boutique hotel rooms but with unassisted living designs, such as reinforced bathroom walls for future grab bar installations, elevator access to suites from garages and on-grade parking.

Unassisted living means inclusive design meeting the abilities of all while enabling an aging individual. This means, for example, storage spaces are lower and cubbyholes are used rather than high cupboards. Wide, open rooms and corridors accommodate future use of mobility devices like walkers and wheelchairs. Sinks have adjustable heights, front-end loading is used in washer/dryers and wall ovens, shelves roll out, refrigerated drawers promote ease of use as do lever-handle faucets. Stairs, counters, floors, dishes and walls have colour contrast to help distinguish their edges.

Multi-Generational Homes

The multigenerational family home is another Zoomer lifestyle niche identified by Chapman and Rosenfeld. The multi-generational family lives together near amenities for children, teenagers and adults. In such homes, full bathrooms, with easy-access toilets and baths, and bedrooms on a home’s first floor provide a welcoming place for guests, family or for someone who can no longer negotiate stairs. There might even be a second master suite in the home. The authors also looked at an example of a multigenerational community, the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life in California, with residences and facilities for different age groups.

Work is also part of the Zoomer identity, as is independence and staying healthy. Chapman and Rosenfeld found that home offices/meeting rooms and fitness/creativity areas, situated in an existing room or as an addition, were an important part of many interviewees’ homes. Renovators and builders should consider how they can accommodate Zoomers’ need for multifunctional rooms that can be used for family, work, multigenerational or recreational needs, such as fully wired, large rooms that are connected to the main dwelling but can also be closed off from it if needed.

The Zoomer client will want input into the design and renovation process. “These homeowners are coming with interests of their own and want to express themselves in their home’s design. This is a consumer used to variety, used to fine-tuning. The more a builder can offer and more flexibility would be well-received by the buyer,” Chapman notes. According to CMHC’s Gabay, “people tend to renovate before they move.” Zoomers who are renovating their homes to sell to a younger generation of buyers should keep in mind that generation’s values and needs.

Future Minded

The term connectivity refers to the ability to stay connected. In the next decade and onward, a home’s connectivity will help Zoomers sell their homes and will entice younger generations — and Zoomers, for that matter — to buy a new or renovated home. “I don’t think it can be overstated, being connected is preferred. I call it the ‘Boomer Spring’; it has a profound impact on choices for this generation as they age,” Chapman observes. Dr. David K. Foot, author of Boom, Bust & Echo, agrees: “Every generation champions new technology. They are the first to adopt it and adapt it. True for front-end Boomers and for the Echo generation.”

Connected homes with multifunctional and adaptable rooms are an important selling point for buyers of all generations. Builders and renovators “should be putting in chases and conduits for wires. Renovators should considering putting in a reno that makes it easy for future adaptations,” stresses Jamie Adam, president of the Waterloo Region Home Builders’ Association and of Pioneer Craftsman Ltd.

The ability of a new home to provide charging for an electric car, that will in the future become a family’s second car, will also be a selling point. “For an electric or plug-in hybrid electric car, a home that has to be equipped with a level 1 (existing regular 110 V outlet) or a level 2 (220 V single-phase) charging system. A homeowner has to purchase a level 2 charger that facilitates car battery charging twice as fast,” states Dr. Narayan Kar, associate professor and Canada research chair in Hybrid Drivetrain Systems at the University of Windsor.

Boomers who renovate with a future buyer in mind could consider Generation X, also known as “Baby Busters,” as potential buyers. According to Gabay’s research in 2009, the combined group of Echo and Baby Busters number 9.6 million in Canada, making them equal in number to the Boomers/Zoomers. He found that in the next four years, these groups will be important sources of household ownership growth at a time when they either have children or are considering having children. American research indicates that this group appreciates affordable, single-family detached homes that are in the suburbs with good schools and jobs nearby. Zoomers who want to renovate to sell their homes should consider targeting the Echo/Baby Busters. The suburban homes Zoomers sell, with rooms renovated for connectivity and multifunction use, will appeal to these generations’ needs.

At the heart it, when building or renovating for the lucrative group of Zoomers, cookie cutter solutions just won’t cut it — with them or any generation, for that matter. Design is an inherent part of the Zoomers’ and the younger generations’ lifestyle, as is flexibility, affordability, technology and convenience. As they have always been, Boomers are savvy, discriminating consumers who want their homes to reflect their individuality, their independence — and their attitude.

Meet the Millennials

“Millennials” is a term popular in the United States referring to individuals born between 1977 (or 1980) to 1995, aging in range today from 17 to 35. This group of consumers is projected to be as large, influential, individualistic and as discriminating as the Boomers. In Canada, the Echo Boomers and the Baby Bust generations will number 9.6 million, which makes their numbers equal in size to the Baby Boomers.

CMHC’s Richard Gabay found that this group “is expected to show a lower propensity to form households in young adulthood, but even so, its sheer size alone make it an important source of household and ownership growth between 2006 and 2016.” Dr. Alan Middleton, assistant professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business, York University, also believes that it’s not “urgent for Millennials” at this time “to look for a home as they are happy renting and sharing places to live.” He notes, however, that they “are very group-driven and influenced by friends’ decisions. If a friend is happy with a home or apartment — that will influence their friends.”

As more individual Millennials can afford to buy homes, other Millennials will follow their example. Marketing to any generation means understanding what sources of information are most important to them. “They will use Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube to stay informed,” says Middleton. Following social media sites is key to staying informed about any trend to increasing homeownership amongst Millennials.

While the older members of the Millennials are in a position to become homeowners, the economic and interest rate conditions will affect their ability to afford a home. American research indicates that many Millennials prefer urban locations in a loft-like environment, but some want to live in a single-family detached suburban home in a semi-urban community. As homeowners, this group places great value on community and living in a neighbourhood where they can pursue their interests. An affordable, easy-to-care-for home with multipurpose spaces for activities and gathering with friends is as important to them as access to technology and having a small carbon footprint.

EnerQuality Workshops

Chapman and Rosenfeld found that Zoomers want to live a more sustainable lifestyle — they may even live “off the grid.” Echo and Baby Buster generations also want to live more sustainably. Builders and renovators who can provide affordable options for sustainable living for all generations regarding, for example, recycled and sustainable materials, photovoltaics, green roofs and geothermal heating, will have a broader repertoire of green options to offer these discerning clients.EnerQuality is offering a pilot series of five workshops, starting in mid-April 2012, to provide education and training for green building practices and integrated sustainability. After completing and passing the workshop’s five sections, a renovator will be certified as a green renovator for green building and sustainability. “The certification provides both knowledge and also competitive edge for the renovator,” notes Zygmunt Strawczynski, manager of education, EnerQuality.

Top 10 Features for “Unassisted Living”

  • Easy entry and egress through garage-accessible elevators and ramps
  • Wheelchair-friendly low drawers, counters, refrigerators and stovetops
  • Easy-access bathrooms, bathtubs and showers
  • Eliminating glare-producing surfaces
  • Multipurpose and fully wired rooms
  • Non-carpeted floors with non-slip surfaces
  • Wider doors (30”) and corridors
  • Easy-to-manipulate levers and flat panels to control light, heat and water use
  • Grab bars
  • Environmental and technology controls that respond to a light touch or voice commands