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AARP AARP States Rhode Island

ADU Design at the State House


AARP Rhode Island tapped the skills and vision of some bright young minds to focus on innovative design concepts for Accessory Dewelling Units — ADUs for short. We teamed up with students from the Rhode Island School of Design for an ADU design competition and shared the results at the State House with a large crowd that included state lawmakers, housing advocates and AARP Rhode Island Advocacy Volunteers. Capitol TV provided live coverage.

Click to Watch the ADU Design at the State House Video

“You see here today some truly innovative ADU concepts,” AARP Rhode Island State Director Catherine Taylor told a crowd overflowing the State House Library. “The RISD Interior Architecture students have earned our admiration for both their creativity and their clear understanding of the housing needs of older adults. We thank the RISD faculty members – led by Wolfgang Max Rudorf and Elizabeth Debs – who embraced this project with such generosity and enthusiasm.

“People thinking of downsizing, hoping to be near families and caregivers, or wanting to stay in a familiar community as they grow older, are very interested in ADUs as flexible and affordable housing options.


“The inspiring work by these talented RISD students will help raise awareness of the many ways ADUs can be designed to meet the needs of older Rhode Islanders and their families,” Taylor added. “We’re delighted to display these exciting designs at the State House so that lawmakers and their constituents can see for themselves why ADUs make so much sense.”


Archinect News:

RISD students team up with AARP to demonstrate the potential of ADUs to lawmakers


1st Place: Team 7 consisting of Holden Rappuhn, Vivian Wei, Alice Zhang, Mallorie Beckner, Kylee Hong, Ella Nadeau, Victoria Stotz, Xinyu Dong, Yukun Cui, and Trevor Gibson


“The fleX modular accessory dwelling unit taps into the benefits of prefabrication while maintaining a flexibility for diverse user groups. Designed for both short and long term stays, the structure can function as a guest room, rental unit, or living space for caretakers, older adults, or the next generation. Also designed with disability and accessibility in mind. Following ADA guidelines, the spaces maintain a 5’ turning radius, 32” high counters with space underneath, a uniform ramp with an incline ratio of 1:12, integrated hand ledges, and accessible layouts in the kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom. The fleX system is comprised of the core unit (460 sq ft with living room, kitchen, and bathroom) and deck space (180 sq ft) with the option to add up to 4 additional wings (260 sq ft with bedroom and/or office space).”


2nd Place: Team 3 consisting of Govind Uberoy, Ragesha Varma, David Li, Mo Zhou, Farnaz Dastranj, Zongda Wu, Qiyan He, Jaeyeon Shin, and Jiaxuan Xu


“Our concept unfolds from a single driving principle: Biophilic wellbeing with a light footprint. Biophilic elements nurture holistic well-being by boosting physical, mental, and social health, while fostering a sense of purpose and vitality in the later years of life. Our approach utilizes five patterns of biophillic design as outlined in a 2014 research report published by TerrapinBright-Green. Sightlines from every space ensure a constant visual connection with nature, while materials like cork and timber reinforce this connection. South facing glass walls allow dynamic and diffuse sunlight filtered through the canopies of trees to flood the space, while allowing a clear view of the surrounding habitat.

The interior architecture of our home prioritizes the well being of its occupants, whoever they may be adhering to universal design principles, large sliding doors and an open plan living area ensures hassle-free ease of movement while allowing other utilizations of the space. Occupants enjoy two separate graded entrances, one to a communal patio that connects them to the main house, and a more private entrance that also serves as an outdoor deck. A low-maintenance preserved moss wall on the North side acts as both a sound barrier for the occupants, and as a visual connection with nature for those in the patio of the main house.”

3rd Place: Team 1 consisting of Abby Haus, Cathy Fan, Candice Chen, Dalal Almazeedi, Martin Ma, Rita Wen, Bensu Girgin, DD Lin, and Harni Shah


“The space was designed keeping in mind five focal factors; accessibility, adaptability, sustainability, light and ventilation. The layout revolved around the concept of modularity keeping the bathroom as the core point and expanding the space following a grid. The design of a butterfly roof created a core that collected the rainwater for reuse. The length facing the southern sun was fixed with solar shingles to harvest enough energy to run the home. While the length facing the northern side had skylights to let light and air when needed. The Low E glass windows were placed as such to provide maximum light and cross ventilation.”

Click to Play the RISD Student ADU Design Video

“In the Interior Architecture department at RISD, we look for opportunities to use design as a way to explore pressing community needs with collaborators who are experts in their fields,” noted faculty member Elizabeth Debs. “AARP has been stellar to work with – in only a few days, students quickly learned important strategies for aging in place, as well as universal design approaches they will be able to use throughout their careers. The sophisticated and nuanced proposals showed an understanding of designing for a range of populations and abilities, and created sensitive, barrier-free designs that focused on well-being. The students really absorbed the important issues presented by AARP and demonstrated empathy for the different populations that need ADUs through the designs.”


RISD Interior Architecture faculty (pictured above, RISD faculty member Elizabeth Debs and RISD Associate Professor, Department Head, Interior Architecture Wolfgang Max Rudorf) encouraged student teams to create designs with an overall goal of thoughtfully increasing the production of ADUs that support aging in place. Criteria included:

Siting Consider the relationship to primary structure and neighboring lots through design to enhance privacy and a balance between independence, safety, and support. When siting the structure consider paths of access, solar orientation, view lines, impact to the site/landscape, and access to vehicles.

Diverse family and household types Accommodate the needs of older adults, disabled persons, caregivers, and renters.

Age-Friendly Design for aging-in-place by incorporating age-friendly features. The size and use of these dwellings will require that they be single story, and reachable via a graded entry. Proposals should include universal design features and be adaptable over time.

Affordability Encourage designs that are lower-cost to construct and maintain to make them financially accessible to households with the widest possible range of incomes.

Sustainability Plan for long term environmental impacts, including initial construction, life cycle considerations, material selection, energy and resource conservation etc.

Innovative construction methods Support new construction and delivery methods, such as panelized, modular, or pre-fabricated homes.

At a minimum, the ADU designs were expected to include facilities for food preparation and eating, bathing and toileting, sleeping, recreation, storage, utilities, and outdoor use. The building size may vary from a minimum of 350 square feet to a maximum of 900 square feet.


In a 2023 AARP Vital Voices Survey, 53% of Rhode Islanders ages 45 and older said they would consider building an ADU. In fact, 5 percent said they have already added an ADU. And a strong majority (79%) support town ordinances that make it easier for property owners to create an ADU.

AARP’s 2023 Long-Term Services and Supports (LTSS) Scorecard ranks Rhode Island 51st, or dead last, in the country for Housing for Older Adults.

And AARP’s 2023 Livability Index gave Rhode Island an overall housing score of 40. The national average is 48.

“The AARP Livability Index shows that all communities have room to improve to ensure that residents of all ages are active, engaged, and supported, particularly when it comes to affordable housing options,” said Rodney Harrell, PhD, AARP Vice President of Family, Home, and Community. “Everyone has a role to play – from community members to researchers, to local advocates and policymakers – to help fill the gaps between what people want and need and what their communities provide, so more older adults can live independently.”

“We must reframe how we think about housing as we grow older, and ADUs are part of the equation,” added Taylor. “Aging in community is possible if homes can be modified to accommodate changing needs. Our cities and towns must have housing options that are suitable for differing incomes, ages and life stages. ADUs are one way to accomplish this goal.”

Learn more about ADUs.

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