More Than Just a Tiny House: One Doctor’s Innovative Alternative to Assisted Living

published Feb 23, 2018
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(Image credit: Minka)

Dr. Bill Thomas has spent the majority of his career trying to improve nursing homes, but now hopes to make it so that people no longer need them, period — by offering scaled-down residences that actually fit the needs of aging seniors. Just, whatever you do, don’t call them tiny homes.

The physician turned building developer is the creator of Minka, a prototype 330-square-foot kit home designed and tested for aging seniors. The “independence-oriented” designs feature elder-ergonomic and ADA-compliant features, decreased financial burdens, and increased connections to the community.

(Image credit: Minka)

In a feature story last month from STAT, pioneering “longevity expert” Dr. Thomas shared his inspiration, ideas, and innovations for the $75,000 Minkas — created from plywood bones using computer controlled routers called CNCs and a software program developed by Dr. Thomas’s son — which can be “clustered like mushrooms in tight groups” (like those of his two prototype communities in Upstate New York) or “tucked onto a homeowner’s existing property so caregivers or children can occupy the larger house and help when needed.”

Far from a bandwagon-jumper on the tiny home trend, Dr. Thomas “bristles at the notion that this is a tiny house” and has actually been working towards the Minka since his medical school years at Harvard in the 1980s — when he and his now-wife started a senior-centric movement called Eden Alternative, followed soon after by the Green House Project, both of which were designed to give aging residents more lifestyle autonomy. He even started a “non-fiction theater company called ChangingAging (now a podcast) that originally toured 125 cities for live performances “alongside professional musicians, clinicians, and others, in a performance meant to challenge assumptions around aging and risk-taking.”

(Image credit: Minka)

But Dr. Thomas’s main focus group for Minka was a lot closer to home: his own two daughters, both of whom were born with a rare neurological disorder and required 24-hour care from their parents well into adulthood. Haleigh Jane Thomas, now 23, is the main resident for the Minka prototype on Lake Cayuga.

As to why he turned from physician to homebuilder, Dr. Thomas told STAT:

“If you measure people’s level of disability, it’s a combination of their ability, their environment, and their expectations,” he said. “We think a lot of people’s expectations as they age are tied to the idea of decline, and so they live with less ability than they truly have. We want to challenge that.”

The best part, for anyone who has also experienced the nature of caring for a dependent relative as they age and/or as their caretaking needs change, is that the Minkas can be move-in ready (with the help of contractors) in about two weeks. According to STAT, a Minka costs around $200 per square foot to build, roughly $25 more than most builders would charge for a conventionally built structure, but they’re refining the manufacturing process to get closer to $150 per square foot to attract local homebuilders to either buy prebuilt Minka kits or customized CNC machines to produce their own.

(Image credit: Minka)

In addition to joining the rise of the “backyard Granny Flat” or accessory dwelling units (ADUs) for multi-generational housing, Dr. Thomas and Minka are also partnering with more established national companies to offer upgrades to the standard kit homes — technologies, tools, and services aimed at helping owners retain their independence through social engagement, healthy eating, and physical activity.

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