To Spare Baby Boomer Wrists, Vancouver Bans the Venerable Doorknob

Vancouver has outlawed the doorknob. Also: twisty faucet handles.

Starting in March, all new construction in the Canadian city must avoid the age-old, round, grab-and-turn knob style in favor of lever handles, the goal being to improve ease of use and accessibility for an aging population and for the disabled. “When I look at what we are proposing, it is simply good design,” Will Johnston, Vancouver’s former chief building inspector, told the Vancouver Sun. “It allows for homes to be built that can be used more easily for everybody.”

Tempting though it might be to see this as an aberration—Vancouver is the only city in Canada with its own building code—the ban could prove influential. “The changes made here are often chased into the B.C. Building Code and Canada’s National Building Code, and then put into practice in cities and towns across Canada,” writes the Sun, in an information-rich chronicle of the knob. “Vancouver’s influence is wide. And as go the codes, so too goes the construction industry.” The city has reportedly already removed the Art Deco knobs that once adorned its City Hall, built in 1936, replacing them with gold-colored levers.

Vancouver’s efforts to spare the wrists of the elderly and dexterity-impaired is the latest signal that the port city takes its demographics seriously—and that a huge opportunity looms for the home improvement biz. In recent years, psychologists, sociologists, urban planners, and companies have increasingly focused on tailoring designs to suit seniors better. It’s a move that makes sense, as baby boomers in the U.S. alone will be turning 65 at a rate of 8,000 per day for the next 16 years, according to AARP.

So as to reduce the bending and stretching required of arthritic boomers, Pulte Homes now offers dishwasher models installed 6 inches higher and microwaves installed lower than the norm. Meanwhile, homebuilder Lennar has seen a spike in demand for NextGen models, which offer “a home within a home,” designed to accommodate aging parents, boomerang kids, and divorced relatives. The private living quarters typically come with a door to the outside, as well as a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and small family room. “We’ve sold probably 1,100 of these floor plans [since late 2011],” says Jeff Roos, regional president of Lennar Land & Homebuilding.

Other senior-focused design changes include cut curbs, and even pattered china and thicker cutlery. “If you are visually impaired, a white plate on a white tablecloth is difficult to see,” Tim Stainton, a professor and director of the School of Social Work at the University of British Columbia, told the Sun. ”In a lot of places you won’t see plain white china any more. They will design a ring around it, or change the edges.”

Vancouver’s lever bylaw (pdf) is not retroactive, which means the city’s knob fanatics can still go out and buy twisty door handles to replace their levers, if they so choose. Some may well do so. Allen Joslyn, the president of the Antique Door Knob Collectors of America, told the Sun: “To say that when I build my private home and nobody is disabled that I have to put levers on, strikes me as overreach.”

Elsewhere, such “overreach” tends to manifest in preservation efforts—to prevent change, rather than enforce it. In Germany, for example, building codes are being used to combat gentrification. To prevent longtime residents of Berlin homes from being displaced by luxury renovations, some neighborhoods have even outlawed certain upgrades, according to Berliner Zeitung. The banned luxuries include floor heating, new bathrooms, and second balconies.

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