The surprising rewards of downsizing
Whether you call it downsizing, rightsizing, aging-in-place, or just retiring, more Baby Boomers are creating homes that will make life easier in future years.
“What we’re seeing is people making a conscious decision before it’s too late to get their stuff in order,” says designer Beverly Baribault. “It’s the difference between having to do it and choosing to do it.”
Increasingly, accessibility has become part of the conversation at many stages of life. Architectural and interior designer Mark Williams says even a young family with whom he is working wants to incorporate multigenerational features into their “forever home” in case the grandparents move in someday.
To create a senior-friendly environment, getting professional help early is critical. Accommodations like wider doorways for wheelchairs, zero-entry showers, and easy-to-reach storage are best incorporated during construction. Also, installing fixtures like grab bars early on allows them to coordinate with other hardware—whereas retrofitting spaces later can start to look institutional.
One of the biggest challenges for scaling back, of course, is sorting through a lifetime of possessions. “The hardest part that these families go through is that their kids don’t want anything,” says Beverly. “The idea of letting go is very emotional and hard. But once they get there, it’s actually invigorating. They start having fun. In the end, that sofa was really never that comfortable. All kinds of reminiscent conversations come out. If you do it right, it’s a slow process. If the designer takes the time and allows clients to go through the emotional steps of letting go, it really turns out to be exciting and fun.”
“We’re trained to think that we need more space than we actually do,” says Mark. “Once we have that space, we work very hard to fill it up. Thinning out stuff becomes very emotional. The process can be difficult, but the results can be exciting.”
A prime example is a home that Beverly designed for longtime clients Don and Connie Evans. Although the couple had retired to Charleston less than two years earlier, they returned to Cartersville, where they’d lived for 50 years, after Don was diagnosed with macular degeneration. Working with Beverly, they located a ranch house on one level with an easy walking path to their former address—a 19th-century English-style manor, where their son’s family now lives.
With help from architect Eric Rothman, Beverly remodeled the entire structure and added a back porch and a new garage. Gutting the interior made it easier to specify conveniences like extra distance between the kitchen island and counters (five feet versus the standard four), lighting inside upper cabinets, and wide hallways. The master bathroom has a curbless shower and brass grab bars that coordinate with other finishes.
Beverly helped the Evanses edit their furnishings to the things that had the most meaning. “We tried very hard to use everything they wanted to keep. Ironically, this is probably the best their personal possessions have ever looked,” says Beverly. “In the big house, Connie’s things were always competing with the incredible architecture of the home.”
Likewise, Mark, assisted by Shanna Springfield, worked with Jerry Cohen and Andrea Strickland to complete their new home in a row of single-family residences attached to Peachtree Hills Place in Buckhead. The location provided the best of both worlds—proximity to longtime friends and a new custom house. “Their former home was beautifully situated on a gorgeous, wooded ridge, but it was a little isolated,” says Mark. “For this stage of their lives, when they were less committed to professional endeavors, they wanted to be closer to their friends.”
Jerry, an attorney with Eversheds Sutherland, and Andrea teamed up with their longtime friend, noted architect Tom Ventulett—a founder of tvsdesign, one of Atlanta’s top commercial firms—to design the house. Ventulett created a 4,500-square-foot stucco cottage with a Modernist, curved-glass balcony, soaring cathedral ceilings, and elegant woodwork, benches, and lanterns reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright.
A major challenge, however, was installing the couple’s extensive art collection. For decades, they had collected masterworks such as one of Philip Pearlstein’s nudes, a Ruud van Empel photograph, a Romare Bearden collage, Stephen Rolfe Powell glass sculptures, and Edward Moulthrop turned wood vessels. The process took the designers and the owners three days: First, they determined which pieces were truly valuable and which were more decorative; then, they experimented with objects in different locations and combinations to find a mix that “didn’t look like a yard sale,” as Mark puts it. A large painting which had always hung in the owners’ bedroom now hangs in the entry hall. A Fabio Lenci leather-and-glass chair, formerly in the living room, now anchors an upstairs reading nook. A painting of a cocktail party by Terry Rodgers hangs behind the dining table, making the space feel perpetually festive.
“You have to be judicious, you have to be thoughtful, and you have to prioritize,” says Mark. “Those are the three things we try to help our clients do. In the end, we were able to reapply their art collection without thinning it. You can actually see it better in the smaller house. It’s less spread out and more present in public spaces.” The best compliment of all? Longtime friends have come over and asked, “Is that piece new?”
RESOURCES | Evans home: Beverly Baribault, Beverly Baribault Design Group, bbaribault.com; Eric Rothman, Rothman + Rothman Design, rothmanandrothman.com | Strickland & Cohen home: Mark Williams and Shanna Springfield, Mark Williams Design, markwilliams-design.com
This article appears in our Fall 2021 issue of Atlanta Magazine’s HOME.