Aging in Place, Part 6: ADA Compliance in Building Design

Design with Accessibility And Aging in Place in Mind

A little planning in advance can make for a comfortable long term home for anyone and everyone. Considering seriously the benefits of incorporating some of the ADA standards for accessibility into your building design will be the focus of this last entry in the Aging in Place series. 

While many ADA compliance regulations apply only to public buildings (in fact, there are some IRS tax credits available to small businesses that might be retrofitting their buildings with ADA compliance in mind), some translate indirectly to residential construction as well. For example, one door in a home needs to provide egress for fire safety, and this also meets wheelchair entrance requirements. There are some space issues around bathroom fixtures (toilets, specifically) that seem to have wheelchair access in mind. But there are a lot of areas where accessibility is overlooked completely. To a degree, this makes perfect sense. Most people will never experience restriction either temporarily or permanently to a wheelchair. But that doesn't mean it can't happen. This link here provides some interesting statistics on long term care requirements and disabilities in the United States.

How Would Your Current Home Feel From a Wheelchair?

For a little experiment, take a look around your home right now. If you or a member of your family were suddenly mobility impaired, how friendly would your home be to you? Could you maneuver into your house, even?  Wheelchairs requires at minimum 32" clear space for entry. How about getting to your bedroom or using the bathroom?  Could you cook a meal if you needed to (or even reach all the ingredients in your fridge or cabinets)? What about opening windows or using the shower on your own? Are your interior doors wide enough for standard wheelchair sizing? If you needed to use a walker or cane for a time or permanently, are there safe places or devices in your home right now that would allow you to maintain your balance in a pinch (think grab bars)?  I'm pretty surprised as I sit here looking around. Parts of my home would be perfectly amenable. But I'm wondering about the width of my bedroom door, and there are three shallow steps to get to the wheelchair accessible front door. The kitchen would be fairly easy to adjust to, but I'd have to move quite a few things around and my usable refrigerator space would be much smaller. And do I have enough lower cabinets to reach the cooking things I use daily?  Not easily. I think I can already see that my "just the right amount of space for everything I really use" kitchen is halved, at best. Certainly the layout is far less convenient if I imagine myself in a chair. 

A Standard Everyone Might Consider Applying: 304.3.2

Not every aspect of ADA compliant building needs to be implemented by everyone. In fact, the list of ADA requirements for public and commercial buildings is rather daunting.  However, I'm going to cite a couple of compliance regulations from the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessibility that I think are generally useful. While the Standards is technical reading and much of the document specifically pertains to commercial buildings, these two notes give us a pretty good feeling for a simple consideration that most of us could incorporate design wise. Both sections of the code relate to turning space, with the second citation being an illustration that I thought was clarifying of the not too fluid "code-prose." Considering turning space in advance can make designing for accessibility effective in almost every situation you can imagine.

Illustration to show T-shaped turning space for wheelchairs. (2010 ADA Standards for Accessibility 304.3.2.) 

Advisory 809.2.2 Turning Space. It is generally acceptable to use required clearances to provide wheelchair turning space. For example, in kitchens, 804.3.1 requires at least one work surface with clear floor space complying with 306 to be centered beneath. If designers elect to provide clear floor space that is at least 36 inches (915 mm) wide, as opposed to the required 30 inches (760 mm) wide, that clearance can be part of a T-turn, thereby maximizing efficient use of the kitchen area. However, the overlap of turning space must be limited to one segment of the T-turn so that back-up maneuvering is not restricted. It would, therefore, be unacceptable to use both the clearances under the work surface and the sink as part of a T-turn. See Section 304.3.2 regarding T-turns.

Just knowing that your home is suddenly accessible to you even from a wheelchair could solve 98% of your  concerns if you are thinking to build a home friendly to aging in place. I won't cite anymore from the document, but it might be worth skimming through just to get a feeling for the many ways that buildings can (or may not) be designed with a friendly mind toward people of all mobility levels. And it might even give you a few design ideas!