High-Profile Senior Care Leader Creates Tiny Homes for Aging

Dr. Bill Thomas is well known for taking on traditional nursing home care through initiatives such as the Green House model. Now, he has introduced two new concepts with the goal of helping people avoid institutional care as they age.

At the recent Aging2.0 conference in San Francisco, Thomas formally introduced Minka. A Minka is a small home built through modular construction, enabled with technologies to help seniors and others who need support to live independently.

These small dwellings could become a cornerstone of larger housing clusters that Thomas is calling MAGIC. The acronym stands for multi-ability/multi-generational inclusive communities. The first MAGIC development is in the works, to be constructed at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville, Thomas told Home Health Care News.

The people’s house

To understand the MAGIC concept, it’s helpful to first picture a Minka “tiny house.”

One of the most obvious defining features of a Minka is its small size. The smallest Minka footprint could be as small as 325 square feet, with a sleeping area, kitchen and bathroom that is fully accessible under Americans With Disabilities Act guidelines, said Thomas.

At this size, a Minka could be built as an accessory dwelling on the same property as a family’s existing home. That’s the case with the first and only Minka home to be built so far, which is a backyard cottage for Thomas’ 21-year-old daughter Haleigh Jane, who needs 24-hour care.

But Thomas hopes and believes that many more Minka homes will be constructed, and that they won’t all look like this first effort.

That’s because a Minka is constructed out of modular pieces that can be “printed” and assembled on demand, in a variety of different floor plans. The research and development process has been focused on engineering these “Lego parts” that can be combined in various ways, Thomas said.

However, the houses do not look like they’re made of Legos. Rather, think of traditional Japanese homes commonly seen in movies, Thomas said. Minka homes have the post-and-beam style common in Japan—“Minka” is the Japanese term meaning “the people’s house.”

The buildings also are meant to be digitally enabled with technology to help people live independently. For example, Thomas said he and his Minka collaborators are working with Amazon to create an Alexa skill set specifically meant to be used in Minka houses.

“The Minka isn’t really a building, it’s a way of creating buildings,” he said.

It’s a way of creating buildings that might be innovative but is not necessarily cheap. The cost to build the first Minka was $60,000, not including the land and foundation for the model—that’s about $185 per square foot.

But the $60,000 price tag is much lower than, say, the six-figure entrance fee common to continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs). And people are not going to be making the decision to invest in a Minka based on a price per square foot calculation, Thomas is betting.

“We’re going to see a shift from evaluating housing on a square foot basis to evaluating on being able to help people live independently,” he predicted. “It’s just like we evaluate a phone based on its utility versus weight. We don’t say, this iPhone costs $1,000 per pound.”

Introducing MAGIC

Thomas thinks this way of creating buildings should help people live independently and also open up new ways for senior housing and care providers to do business.

For instance, a senior living or home care provider could help clients through the process of building Minkas on their own personal real estate, and then create digitally connected care ecosystems spread across a market. Or, a senior living company might think about building many Minka houses on a single parcel of land and then providing care and other support services for the residents.

Senior living buildings that offer more or less standardized living spaces and services work well in some areas and for some consumers. But these projects also require scrupulous market selection, significant capital and available real estate. In the longer term, Thomas sees senior living providers diversifying their offerings in response to these challenges and to meet evolving consumer preferences, which he calls “the great unbundling.”

Much as people want to opt out of standard “bundled” cable packages, preferring to pay for only those channels they watch, they will want more customized housing, services and lifestyles as they age, he thinks.

He is positioning Minka to be one tool that senior living or home care companies can leverage to enable this more individualized experience of aging, in markets where developing a large, traditional senior housing community is not feasible or smart.

“I believe the whole senior housing industry is going to be getting very enthused about accessory dwelling units in the next five to ten years,” he said.

Mainstreet Investments provided some backing for the Minka project, and Thomas currently is chief wellness officer of independent living giant Holiday Retirement. But the Minka project is currently not affiliated with Holiday, Mainstreet or any other senior housing company.

Thomas and his partners are inviting interested senior care companies to get in touch about potential collaborations. And they’re open to working with organizations outside the industry as well—such as the University of Southern Indiana (USI).

The school is in need of new student housing. Rather than building a traditional dormitory, however, it has chosen to be the site of the first MAGIC community.

“The University is excited to be working with Dr. Bill Thomas and his team on this proposal,” Dr. Ann White, dean of USI’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, said in an emailed statement to HHCN. “We also look forward to exploring further opportunities as we continue to discuss how USI can help change the narrative on aging through education.”

Though the exact plans are in the early stages, the idea is to create housing for different generations and abilities all in the same cluster on campus. Minka homes likely will be part of this cluster, Thomas said.

Just as bundled services are losing their appeal to consumers, so too are large senior living communities that group and “segregate” residents by age and care needs, he thinks. At the same time, university partnerships with senior living are emerging as a winning strategy.

With these trends playing out, the Magic model makes sense, and USI could emerge as a glimpse into the future of what senior living looks like in the United States, according to Thomas. Still, he doesn’t think that traditional, congregate-style senior housing is destined to disappear—although he does think it will start to become more multi-generational.

“I’m kind of a fan of congregate housing, it’s age-segregated that I think will be in for rough sledding,” he said. “I think there will continue to be congregate housing, but the more choices people find in front of them, the more they’ll find something that suits them best.”

Written by Tim Mullaney

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Tim Mullaney on Email
Tim Mullaney
If he’s not in the newsroom, Tim likes to be on the tennis court or traveling to a new destination. Recent highlights include Sri Lanka and Iceland.