It is estimated that by the year 2036, more than half of all Canadian households will be headed by people 55 years or older1. As the needs of homeowners change, they are demanding more versatility from their housing. Housing with flexible features that can accommodate occupants’ changing requirements easily and inexpensively will be in high demand.

The key to meeting this demand is to make housing as adaptable as possible from the time of construction. An adaptable housing unit can be a standard-looking unit with features that can be tailored to the specific needs of residents as their particular needs evolve, without costly renovations or structural changes. Accessible features like wider doors and corridors, entrances without steps and lever hardware should be part of the unit from the outset. Wall reinforcement allows for the later installation of grab bars or rails; these are less expensive if incorporated during initial construction. Cabinets can be designed to be height-adjustable or removable.

Adaptable housing addresses some of the same concerns as universal design, while catering to an even wider range of needs. Adaptable housing can be upgraded, expanded, divided into extra units or used for a variety of purposes throughout its life. Several models have emerged that demonstrate the opportunities and benefits of adaptable housing.

Adaptability is also very relevant at the neighbourhood scale. A community that offers a range of housing forms (detached homes, row houses, apartments, and others) and of tenure options allows residents to choose different dwelling types and tenure arrangements as their needs change without having to relocate to other neighbourhoods. Housing developments that offer a continuum of care, ranging from self-contained units for independent living, to housing with a higher level of support, to a full-care housing arrangement, enable residents to make these transitions without moving away.


FlexHousing™ incorporates, at the design and construction stage, the option to make future changes easily and with minimum expense in order to meet the evolving needs of its occupants. This approach allows families and individuals to access more affordable housing, stay in the home longer and can help make these units more affordable for owners and renters.

As circumstances change, FlexHousing™ allows homeowners to adapt their existing housing relatively easily and economically rather than move. For instance, if a resident becomes less mobile and requires a bathroom on the main floor of the house, the design of the plumbing system will allow the owner to convert a closet or spare room into one. Similarly, the design of the stairs will allow for the installation of a stairclimbing mechanism. The inclusion of unfinished spaces within a new home to reduce first costs provides an option for finishing at a later time as needs demand. FlexHousing™ also emphasises flexibility of tenure. A young family may need all floors of a house as children grow up but once they move out, the home should be easily subdividable to accommodate an income producing secondary suite (see “Grow Home” below).

Any home can be a FlexHouse — a suburban bungalow, high-rise condominium or infill townhouse. FlexHousing™ is simply an approach to designing and building homes based on the principles of adaptability, accessibility, affordability and Healthy Housing™.

  • Adaptability means thinking ahead during the construction of the house. This saves time, money and hassle later on by avoiding the need for costly renovations, for example roughing in plumbing to accommodate future needs for bathroom conversions, or providing an unfinished space in a new home that can be converted later.
  • Accessibility means creating a home that is user-friendly to people of all ages and abilities. For example, wide doors and stairs, low windows, and easy-to-grasp lever handles benefit children and the elderly alike.
  • Affordability may mean investing money up front in order to save in the future. While the up-front costs of an adaptable house may be greater compared with a normal home, homeowners benefit from the investment in the long term. For example, structural reinforcement of walls allows for the future addition of grab bars and other support features at a reasonable cost.2

Richmond, B.C., is home to a two-storey demonstration FlexHouse built to accommodate a variety of homebuyers. It has a floor plan that enables the house to be converted from a four-bedroom family home to a duplex or a set of rental suites. The house was also designed using healthy materials and with energy efficiency and accessibility in mind. The Richmond FlexHouse Project is the result of a collaboration between CMHC, the City of Richmond and Pacific Western Developments Ltd., which built the house.3

Also in British Columbia, the City of Saanich has instituted a Basic Adaptable Housing bylaw that requires basic adaptable housing features in all newly constructed buildings that are serviced by an elevator and contain apartment or congregate housing uses.4


Adaptable housing may include residences such as accessory apartments that can accommodate an aging family member. Accessory apartments are adaptations that can be made to single-family homes so that aging parents can live close to their children and their families or so that caregivers can live in the homes of aging people. Accessory units can be created by transforming a suitable basement into additional living space or by creating a small residence such as a laneway house or a “granny flat” that is separate from, but on the same property as, the main family home. Accessory units can also provide rental income for older owners.


Another approach to adaptable housing is the Grow Home, a housing design that is easily modifiable and can suit people of all ages and family situations. It is a townhouse design that can be extended up and to the rear or be subdivided as its residents’ needs change5.

The Grow Home was originally developed by Avi Friedman and Witold Rybczynski of the Affordable Homes Program in the School of Architecture at McGill University in 1990. They wanted to create a home that would be affordable to low-income households and could expand as the family grew. A Grow Home is a three-storey townhouse on a base measuring around 4 × 11 m (14 × 36 ft.), with a floor area of about 100 m² (1,000 sq. ft.). The Grow Home includes a finished first floor containing a kitchen, bathroom and living space. One or more upper floors are open-concept and left unfinished. Over time, the occupants can finish the upper floors as they prefer and expand the housing if they need additional room. Although the original idea was to make housing affordable, the Grow Home is a good example of adaptable housing that could allow for aging in place6.


In the United Kingdom, the Lifetime Homes standard, a concept developed in 1991, is intended to make homes more adaptable for lifelong use. The design of Lifetime Homes incorporates 16 design criteria, relating to:

  • car parking width,
  • access from car parking,
  • approach gradients,
  • accessible entrances,
  • communal stairs and lifts,
  • doorways and hallways,
  • wheelchair accessibility,
  • living room,
  • entrance level bedroom space,
  • entrance level toilet and shower drainage,
  • bathroom and toilet area walls,
  • stair lift / through-floor lift,
  • tracking hoist route,
  • bathroom layout,
  • window specification, and
  • controls, fixtures and fittings.

1Canadian Housing Observer 2011, figure 5 – 22, page 71.

2Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. (2000). Research Highlight: FlexHousing™: Building Adaptable Housing.

3City of Richmond. Flex House. Retrieved from

4Saanich, B.C., Basic Adaptable Housing, Schedule F to Zoning Bylaw 8200.

5Team Dunker, “Grow Home” from Seaton Handbook, 1995.

6For more information, see the CMHC website at

Date Published:: March 31, 2018