Plans, Drafting & Design

aging in place

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

aging in placeJamie PurnellComment

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!

Aging in Place, Part 5: Reaching Compromise with Concerns

aging in placeJamie PurnellComment

Resilience in Aging - A Memory of Chester Grady

Visit the historic  Grady Machine Shop  in Maine

Visit the historic Grady Machine Shop in Maine

For not quite three years we lived in Belfast, Maine.  While there, we lived on the same street as a centenarian named Chester (Chet) Grady and while our road had been renamed officially by the town, it was informally and more popularly knows as "Chester Grady Road" by locals. By the time we met Chester, he was within months of the end of his life. He had a bed set up in the corner of the main room but prior to this very short time in the front room, he'd been climbing the stairs to the same bedroom where he was born (!!!) every night. I found this brief meeting remarkable and it left an impression on me. 

I mention Mr. Grady because his story is unique and interesting but also because it sets the stage for the penultimate blog entry in this Aging in Place series. I'm going to broach the topic of reaching a compromise with our concerns (and fears) about aging. While I've been writing this series, I have wanted to focus not on "disaster" planning, but on an empowering and aesthetic approach to design that encourages us to build homes that we have relationship with; we want our homes to support us in sickness and in health, hopefully, as was the case for Chet Grady, till death do us part!  At the same time, I don't want to leave the impression that all design considerations allowing aging in place have to concurrently assume that our lives will necessarily contain infirmity - rather that what comes, we will be able to handle, with our homes.

Approaching Health Concerns Realistically

Accidents are just that. They happen out of the blue, infrequently, and with surprising outcomes. I generally don't think twice about walking to the grocery store even though I could be run over by a car along the way. It's not something I expect to happen, which doesn't mean it couldn't happen. And as a result, I walk on the correct side of the road, wear appropriate attire to the light conditions, and stay mindful of the cars approaching me in case they appear to be inattentive. In other words, I take active, rational steps to walk safely and thus don't fear overmuch for my safety on the road. Even so, I know accidents can happen.

Planning to build with aging in place in mind should be a hedge and a thought provoking process that does not assume sickness ahead but embraces that change of varying sorts will enter into all of our lives. One thinking about a home shouldn't feel that they can't pursue design as they want it - planning to live our lives fully in a home we love doesn't mean having to set aside certain features, but to consider features fully and evaluate whether they will provide lasting rewards. If you experience health issues now, you're probably not keen to build a home that has a lot of structure in it that poses difficulty (why put a grand staircase in a home if you are currently using a wheelchair?). But if your situation is quite the opposite, you might even view stairs as a part of your daily health routine and want to keep them incorporated for sure. Even in this situation, you might consider ways that the stairs will not make your home uninhabitable should a very serious injury or illness change your circumstances. Another approach, of course, would be to think about whether your lifestyle is one that minimizes future risk for the most part. While we can't prevent every accident, we can do a lot to reduce the likelihood of their happening. And we can do that with our health, to a large degree, as well by eating well, getting regular exercise, etc. 

Summarizing - The Balanced Approach

To briefly summarize, if you want to live in your home "forever" it's important to give due thought to changes that might occur in life. Certainly, we will all age and notice those effects. But consider carefully how to approach the process. Design strives to reflect the character of those living in the space - and that applies whether you are considering yourself in the present or the future. Thoughtful touches can make a big difference in terms of long term viability, but also keep in mind that it makes little sense to build a house that you find unappealing aesthetically because you fear a life with mobility issues that may never materialize. Balance is key.

I've tried to approach this series from a perspective that enables a view of design and the intention to live a long time in the same place as an enjoyable process of discovery rather than one that focuses on scary possibilities and creates a sense of fear. I hope this comes through!  

Aging In Place, Part 4: Right Sizing 101

aging in placeJamie PurnellComment
Serious thought about the right size of a YOUR house is important too!

Serious thought about the right size of a YOUR house is important too!

Big or Small? Right Sizing in a Nutshell

When designing, embrace the idea of right sizing over pre-conceived notions of small and large. It's entirely possible to design a space that's too small as well as too large. Either situation can make a house less optimal for people, and both situations can be prevented to a large degree by careful planning - so long as one has or takes the time to do it. If you're here, reading this, you are probably a fan of smaller spaces. But even for we lovers of small, it's important to keep asking, "What do we need from our homes to accomplish our goals as inhabitants?"  Some general answers might include shelter, safety, a place to enjoy and take pride in, a place near our work (or far from it!). But size matters here, too. Deeper considerations might assess specifics like needing (or not) a garage, a workspace, home office, bedrooms for kids or guests, garden spaces, kitchen with or without extras, areas for entertaining, outdoor rooms...these preferences are heavily influenced by really personal attributes. Do you have a big family? Do you love to entertain or host gatherings?  Are you a cook, an artist, a craftsperson, do you like big open spaces or small cozy ones? What's your climate like? Are you home much? Do you need a huge deck if you have an outdoor window of opportunity only a month or two long? Maybe. Maybe not. Not just our personal preferences, but even our geography can be an influencer in design priorities. 

We have a client NOT including private guest bedrooms as she doesn't want to encourage long visits from her many friends!  Having had too many visitors in past situations, she knows it detracts from her home experience, so she's allowing multifunction spaces to suffice. A space is there, but not so welcoming that it will make for overstaying. Another example...clients have a condo in the city and are designing a second home. It's meant for (big and fairly frequent) family gatherings. Though it won't be their permanent residence, they are even designing in kitchen features that allow for particular family members tastes and lots of bedrooms for kids and grandkids (not all of whom are even here yet!). The second home is, in fact, larger than their main residence - which is in a city and too restricted in size to serve these important needs. In both examples, it's the fulfilling of function that's critical to the client, not size alone. In a nutshell, that's Right Sizing. 

Make Your Own Right Sizing Design Checklist

When you start designing, be honest with your needs and try and make them conform to your own self rather than an imagined ideal. Shawn and I have always felt that most houses are too big, have a lot of wasted space and inefficiency built in. However, we have found, through experience, that 800 square feet is not enough for us. Why?  We both work from home. We also plan to rent part of our home out and/or have an autonomous space for visitors. We grow, cook and preserve a lot of our own food so space is needed for storage and preparation. We live in a climate with a long winter and have activities that we need some space to do inside. Importantly, we are embracing a Passive House building technology that requires even thicker wall assemblies than we've built before. Some of our square footage will be for extra insulation! These are some personal factors on our checklist. It's helped us when we first gape at our square footage calculations and react with "Oh, no, that's too big!"  It helps us answer that question more effectively. Your checklist should provide the same benefit.  Do you need a wine room?  I mean that seriously!  We have friends who are INTO wine - their collection brings them joy and satisfaction, and it takes up a corner of their dining room and expands under the house! Conversely, we are NOT into it - we don't even need a shelf in the pantry for it!  Go to a Home Depot and you'll see wine fridges all over the place as though everyone needs one. So ask YOURSELF the question!  Is this need real or is it put in your head by kitchen and bath design magazines? Either answer is okay if you use the information critically to design a better space for your needs!

If our homes are bigger than we need, they don't offer appropriate payback. They waste space and our time by requiring maintenance, conditioning, cleaning, time, etc. If our homes are too small, they can frustrate us and inhibit our goals. Well designed homes should be tailored to suit. Needs, like body shapes, are non conforming. Insisting that one size fits all isn't an approach that will reap great rewards. In particular when one is building a home to live in for the long term, it's important to have a good grasp of need. 

A Few Last Design Tips

Is the house you're designing too big?  Are you overdoing it on the "Well, I'm only going to build once!" excuse?  Remember that everyone has a budget...overextending it can make a dream home into a nightmare. I'd certainly suggest that building too small is better (or at least less costly?) than building too large, but taste the salt in that, too. If you end up remodeling or expanding when you hadn't wanted to, you're also potentially wasting time and money! Have you looked around the outside of your home for inspiration? Does the home achieve the aesthetic you are striving for?  A cute cottage design can get lost if it expands a great deal. Likewise, a modern beachfront design you love may not compress well. And surroundings can play into that as well. Does your surrounding support the aesthetic you're embracing?  It might matter. Does the space you are designing advance the "cause" of the inhabitants? Does it provide the shelter, comfort and safety you want? Does it promote creative or well flowing aspects of your life?  Does the size do something for you or does it make life more difficult?

My last bit of advice is to keep asking these and other questions as you meander the design process. A key to aging in place successfully is for our homes to be scaled to the users and rightly sized.