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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!

Designing for Aging in Place: A Multi Part Blog Series

Design Philosophy, aging in placeJamie PurnellComment

Aging in Place for All Ages

There is an old Chinese adage that states, "Build the well before you are thirsty." It seems highly applicable to design and building. 

In the next few blog entries I'll be exploring the concept and some design ideas relating to aging in place. I guess that's partly because I'm ready and looking forward to staying put for a while. We're not young and we're not old either. What we are is getting ready to embark on our final homebuilding project (at least for a long long while) so it's on my mind. We want to build the right way for our needs, so that we can stay in our home for a long long time, incorporating needed and wished for spaces along with care and thought that will make the home comfortable for us potentially until we reach a great age. Here are some of the topics I'll explore, frequently using my own experiences as examples.  I hope that despite including my own experience as a reference point you'll easily be able to substitute yourself and your own inclinations along the way. If you want more or find a particular area of interest, check back in to future entries for a more fully fleshed out exploration. In the meantime, just kick back and ask yourself, "If I go to the trouble and expense of designing my dream home, what features would I include to make it a home I can enjoy for many decades to come?"

Long Term Affordability

Can your home be designed so that it also "pays for itself?"  For our next build, we want to incorporate some sort of structure in the design that will allow us to rent a fully separate part of our home out if we so choose. This will help with taxes, have the potential to generate income, and will provide space for visitors. Having an easy to care for unit that provides a little income potential will help us stay in our home, even if taxes continue to increase and we choose to retire someday, or if we weren't able to work any longer in our chosen field.  Not only that, if we ever needed medical care from someone skilled, they could even have a place to stay (we live in a geographically complicated location).

Designing for changes in physical capacities. 

Small Barrier Free Shower.jpg

Barrier Free Shower

Though not large, the 840 square foot Itacha Modern house we built offers a European style bathroom wet room with a curbless walk-in shower!

It's now easy to design classy and sleek kitchens and baths that are also fully accessible (this is also sometimes referred to as barrier free design). Check out the slick bathroom styles you can choose from at http://trendingaccessibility.com - all barrier free if you choose to make them so.  When we designed our last build, Ithaca Modern, which we finished earlier this year, we included a European style wet-room that has a curbless shower. Not only is it barrier free - it's easy to clean!

Kitchens, when you are designing your own home, are well worth doing some thinking about, and when you start from scratch, you get to make the rules. It's worth considering how to include options for an unknown future along with the appliances you've always dreamt of. They can mesh, I'm convinced.

Right sizing your house design. 

Health and mobility issues aside, what features should you include to make the house viable for your long term needs? This part of design is huge for aging in place without regrets! For us, it means spending enough time on the issue of right sizing. I'll use some of our concerns as examples. The bigger it is, the more maintenance costs involved both in time and money. Plus, we're minimalists by nature and don't want a huge house full of stuff. However, building too small could also land us on Rue Street (French 101 pun, sorry) - wishing we'd made enough space for things we really value and need. For example, we live in the usually wet and not too warm (but otherwise fairly wonderful) Pacific Northwest. For a couple of activity lovers, this leaves us valuing a space to work out indoors enough to include it in our design. 

Reaching a compromise with concerns. 

Again using ourselves as an example: Our building lot precludes building a one story house both dimensionally and in having a lovely view made even better with a second story. We don't anticipate losing our mobility - and take steps to maintain health. While we want to hedge our bets in designing for the long term, we can't hedge them all. We're okay with this, and with potentially needing to do some retrofitting down the road. I guess my point is, this isn't disaster planning - or at least, not strictly so. Nothing in thoughtful preparation has to preclude designing to your preconceived desires. Include what you want and at the same time spend a little time considering how it would feel to have to leave your home. Maybe there are some things you can include to make that a much less likely possibility, even if something rotten and unexpected happens to you.

The nitty gritty aspects of ADA specifications.

A ramp might be a less common need for aging in place but keeping entries wide and accessible without a lot of stairs could be useful. This is from an ADA approved plan we designed for some clients in our home town.

It's a little daunting to read the requirements that commercial buildings need to adhere to to meet these standards - check it out here if you don't believe me. You don't have to meet every one of these standards for your own build, but it's useful to know things like minimum width for making a full turn in a wheelchair in a kitchen or bathroom, for example, or having some information about accessible hallway and door widths or window and counter top heights that assist in barrier free living. A little information can assist and even foster design tremendously.

So what's next?

There is an old Chinese adage that states, "Build the well before you are thirsty." It seems highly applicable to design and building. Building a home that will accommodate you and your needs for the long term is great planning from a financial point of view at any age. You could just as easily employ this thinking when considering expanding your family as you could when downsizing at retirement age for example. This kind of thinking is one of the base layers of the Aging in Place approach to building. 

Imagine if your home allowed you to experience a major health setback, whether it were a temporary loss of mobility or something long term like a stroke or complications from an illness, and not have to spend days or weeks in a hospital or rehabilitation setting. How about the potentiality for assisted living from the privacy of your own home?  Certainly, an approach like this could save a lot of money in very short order, especially if a group setting doesn't appeal to you. Planning for aging in place can be as simple as including a first floor bedroom or as involved as planning for a fully barrier free home. You can be in any decade of your life and benefit from incorporating just a little of the thinking behind building for aging in place. Here are some common things to consider:

  • How many bedrooms will you need? 
  • Do you plan on having kids?
  • Is there a passion in your life that could likely become a home based business? 

As a quick thought exercise, Do you think at this point in time you could design a home that will last you all the way through your end? I'm not sure I could, but it's worth considering. 

I hope you'll stay tuned and enjoy some of my upcoming blog entries. If you have comments or suggestions, experiences or things especially on your priority list, I hope you'll share by sending me an email or leaving a comment below.