Entries in adapting (1)


Adapting or Building a Home for Universal Access

As the mother of a disabled son, I feel I am uniquely qualified* to help you with your questions about modifying or building a home for universal access. Over the years, my own home has been modified to allow our son greater access to all of our activities. Even though my situation may be different from yours, many of us will experience a disability at least temporarily. All of us can have accidents and find ourselves or a family member on crutches, using a walker or even a wheelchair. So how would you get yourself up stairs or through a narrow door? How would you make dinner, do laundry or use the bathroom? Planning for the unexpected can help us continue living full and productive lives. All it takes is a little preparation, some expert help and a vision.

It is also true that the demand for accessible housing will continue to rise. Most of us want to live independent lives and we want the ability to take care of ourselves so we can remain active and less dependent. Traditional builders have never really understood the needs of the disabled so finding a home that is accessible is difficult. Most homes can be modified to accommodate your needs and physical capabilities. If your needs are greater than a few simple fixes then building an accessible home may be your answer.

So what makes a home accessible? It boils down to the ability to enter and move around without obstacles. When we visit friends and family, the first difficulty we encounter are the front steps and narrow doorways. A wheelchair needs at least a 36” opening but a 42” or better will enable the user to easily get in the house. Once inside, plan on converting those narrow 24” doors to 32”, 36” or better. Stairs are really difficult to maneuver. Platforms are a sounder investment. They also make a beautiful entrance to a home.

Another alternative is the wheelchair ramp. The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a “ramp as any part of a wheelchair-accessible route to a building with a slope greater than 1 inch of rise for every 20 inches of length. The guidelines require that ramps be constructed with the least possible degree of slope. The maximum rise allowed for a ramp is 30 inches. In new construction, ramps can rise at no more than the rate of 1 inch or rise for every 12 inches of run.” There are ready-made ramps available if you have a temporary situation to deal with, but make sure you have adequate space to allow for the run.

At my house we integrated landscaping pathways as means of access. Since landscaping does not fall under the code, the slope can be slightly steeper and more aesthetic to the house. We also incorporated shade areas to encourage lingering. Our son is extremely heat sensitive and burns easily so shade is very imortant to his well being. This open pavillion in our backyard provides him with shade, sound and the oppurtunity to partipate in family functions. Talk with a qualified landscaper to determine the best design for your needs.

Inside, doorways need to be enlarged to an opening at least 32” wide but 36” wide is really preferable. A typical wheelchair needs a 5’ turning radius to move and turn freely. Going down a hallway and into a room like a bedroom or bathroom you need to make sure you can turn the chair and get through the door without a problem. The door itself needs to swing flush against a wall. An offset door hinge can increase the width about 2” and is often enough to allow a wheelchair or walker to pass through. We use pocket doors with great success since they slide directly between the walls and open the doorway up completely.

Kitchens are difficult for people in wheelchairs to access. Sometimes the removal of lower base cabinets will help to provide access, but lowering the counter to desk height, installing pull out shelves or drawers, the use of a lazy susan in cabinets and even adding a pull out or drop down shelf can help. Just remember to relocate electrical receptacles, garbage disposal and exhaust fan switches to the front of the cabinet or counter.

In the bedroom make the space your own by adding dimmers near your bedside, installing low pile carpeting or adding wood floors, placing motion detecting sensors in the areas between your bedroom and bathroom and even adding electric window coverings that you can control from one location in the room. If you need an electric bed, make sure you have an accessible outlet near where the bed is placed. For your closet, enlarge the opening and install adjustable shelves and rods to accommodate your specific needs. Consider adding a light in the closet to make it easier

The final obstacle in any home for universal design is the bathroom. There are a number of considerations to take into account when designing the room.

  • Toilets: the average residential toilet is 14” to 16” high. A better choice would be a comfort height toilet, which measures 17” to 19” high. A taller toilet makes easier to transfer from a seating position to another. It is also easier on the legs. An elongated seat is another good option. The shape is more natural to the human body and is more comfortable overall. A soft close lid, which is another option, is a nice to have when remodeling.
  • Sinks and Faucets: a typical sink is placed in a vanity and is not usually wheelchair friendly. Although pedestal sinks look great, there are not many options when it comes to height. The best answer is to install a wall mounted sink at your preferred height. For the faucet look at replacing all with a single lever and install an anti scald feature to protect you and your family.
  • Bathtubs and Showers: a bathtub can be extremely hazardous. Transferring from a wheelchair to a tub is very difficult. Getting out of a wet tub back into the wheelchair is even harder. The solution is the replace the tub with a shower. There are prefabricated molded acrylic/fiberglass shower units that fit into the space of the tub area. Another option is to build a custom shower with grab bars, seating and slip resistant flooring. Showers can be built with a curb or without, also known as a roll-in shower. There are problems associated with each design so make sure to check with your architect or builder to make the right decision based on your needs, your room configurations and your home.

 Finding a contractor familiar with universal design can be challenging and frustrating. I have assembled a team of qualified architects, builders and designers who are well versed in designing for accessibility. When we find the perfect house for you, I can call in the team to give you advice about how to make your house the right home for your special needs.

 *Disclaimer: These are my own personal recommendations, a qualified, licensed archetect and conractor should be consulted prior to the start of any project. All Township Building Codes must be observed.