“Accessibility”, as it pertains to the design of buildings, is a term that most of us are somewhat familiar with. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (the “ADA”) mandates that most buildings used by the public be designed for ease of use by persons with many kinds of disabilities. We’ve all seen accessible parking spaces, ramps, and washrooms in retails stores, airports, and office buildings.
Homes, too, should incorporate design features and products that are easier to use by people of all ages and abilities. It’s a concept called “universal design”. For most people however, the image of an accessible home is one of fluorescent lights, wheelchair ramps, and white porcelain plumbing fixtures – more like a clinic than a home.
But an accessible home needn’t be like that at all. In fact, many design features and fixtures that work well for accessibility are also well suited for just about anyone. Accessible design is often just plain good design – a well-integrated accessible home design can and should extend a home’s usability through more than just one phase of family life.
Start In The Kitchen
Making a house more accessible isn’t particularly difficult or expensive. You might even have some universal design principals at work in your kitchen now.
“Side-by-side” refrigerators are more usable by a person in a wheelchair – unlike a unit with the freezer mounted on top. Inside the refrigerator, sliding shelves eliminate the need to reach all the way to the back to retrieve what you want.
A very common disabling condition associated with aging is reduced physical strength, which can make cooking in a large pot difficult if it has to be lifted into and out of the sink to fill with water. Instead of a standard kitchen faucet, install a “goose-neck” spout that allows the pot to be filled without lifting it into the sink. And place the cooktop nearby so that the pot can be easily slid across the countertop to the burner – no lifting required.
The latest in dishwasher design is the “drawer” type like those from Fisher & Paykel and KitchenAid. Drawer dishwashers don’t require as much bending over to load and unload and because there’s no door in the way, they’re more easily used from a sitting position.
As the American population ages and as housing prices escalate, many homeowners are trying to stay in their homes longer. Too often however, family homes are primarily designed for young families and become rapidly obsolete when they can no longer provide the convenience and safety that older citizens need. It’s an unfortunate result of a “disposable home” mentality – but that’s a topic for a future article!
A few simple design changes can make almost any home better able to support changing lifestyles, as ease of use and safety become important issues. One of the easiest is the installation of blocking for grab bars at appropriate places in the bath when the house is built. These simple and inexpensive structural supports are used for the future installation of grab bars, which provide increased safety in showers, tubs, and at toilets.
Another easy change is using “lever-type” door hardware – popular because of its looks and ease of use but also a requirement for persons with reduced strength or restricted mobility. Widening the doors a few inches can also extend the useable life of the house. Standard thirty-inch doors aren’t wide enough for wheelchairs and can be difficult for anyone with trouble walking. A thirty-six inch wide door solves both problems and makes moving furniture a lot easier, too.
Ups and Downs
Stairs are the biggest obstacle to making any home accessible. Typically, a fully accessible home must be all on one level – no stairs, step-downs, or even door thresholds. But a one-level home is more costly to build than a two-story and may require a larger property.
A better solution is a residential elevator. Sound expensive? Compared to the cost of a one-level home on a larger lot, an elevator is a very reasonable expense. It only adds about sixty square feet to the floor plan, and enables easy access to the first floor, the second floor, and the basement. Even better, only the elevator shaft need be installed now – the actual elevator equipment doesn’t have to be in place until it’s needed, maybe many years down the road.
Easier Than You Might Think
In most cases, accessible or universal design isn’t much more than good design sense and a desire to make houses usable by everyone – and isn’t that a worthy goal for any house, regardless of the current occupants? Our houses are sometimes a little too disposable – we can easily make them less so by making them more functional for a wide range of homeowners with and without disabilities. We’ll all benefit from design that helps people stay in their homes longer.