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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 3: Designing for Change

aging in placeJamie PurnellComment

Designing for the long-term, It's not just for Retirees!

Working in residential design, with clients in different locations, of varying ages and life stages, and with all kinds of needs and outlooks on life has taught us a great deal. One of the lessons learned has been that no matter your age or the size of your house, it's worth spending time considering accessibility issues for one's home - especially if you are planning to live in it for a long time. Even people not considering building from scratch give a lot of thought to how their homes will serve or pose challenges as they age or circumstances change. Very few Americans will live in the same home for their entire lives - see Five Thirty Eight. But in just my small social circle, several friends and family members do fit the bill of planning to stay in their homes "forever." So here are some thoughts on designing a space that will allow you to age in place a little more easily. Not all of these suggestions involve the expectation of major mobility issues and most of them could also apply to people choosing to retrofit their homes to make things more smooth flowing.

A one story home with limited steps and multiple access points makes for an easy entry. The gardens will require lots of upkeep!

A one story home with limited steps and multiple access points makes for an easy entry. The gardens will require lots of upkeep!

Accessible Landscape & Barrier Free Entries

A recent client described to us the house she plans to build later this year and one of the things she emphasized was a low maintenance yard with easy access.  She wanted a deck but one with a minimum of stairs (preferably just one) to allow accessibility for herself and any friends who might visit, regardless of physical condition. She wanted to keep gardens to a minimum and maintain as much of the native flora as possible as it was already self sustaining and would not require a ton of work to keep up. This was partly out of consideration of her time and how she wanted to spend it - and also forward thinking; an easy to maintain yard is just that, no matter your age or physical condition. If you don't crave a garden area and derive a lot of satisfaction from the upkeep involved, it's worth thinking about. Similarly, as regards outdoor features like decks, ponds, garages, gazebos, etc...take some time to think about their maintenance when you are designing. There are a variety of lower maintenance materials available now (composite decking that is impervious to rot and requires no staining, for example) to cut down on how much work has to go toward upkeep. Likewise, if you are concerned about access to your home, consider minimizing or eliminating stairs or creating alternate pathways that might be easier to use in case of mobility issues. Maybe your foundation choices will influence the layout of your land and entrances to your home (eg: a slab, a walkout basement, or a crawlspace foundation all have different tendencies when it comes to entrances, especially when paired with the geographic quirks of your building envelope - is your site sloped, for example?)

Floor Planning for Long Term Usability

Long-term living solutions don't have to look sterile, they can follow any style!  Photo Credit:  Innovative Building Solutions

Long-term living solutions don't have to look sterile, they can follow any style!

Photo Credit: Innovative Building Solutions

When considering your floor plan, give a little thought to whether or not you want multiple stories or a single floor layout. Some people find that as they age, kids move out, etc. second floor bedrooms either aren't used as much or won't be as easily useful. On the other hand, you may really like the aesthetic that a multi story home has and want to consider ways to repurpose rooms as needs evolve. It's also perfectly true that not everyone worries a great deal about mobility compromises and so stairs don't pose an issue. We have friends who love their home just as it is - so much so that they'd sooner install an in home elevator than even consider moving. Again, details that thinking ahead of time can resolve to one's satisfaction. Your approach will depend on a lot of factors, current needs and conditions, finances, perceived likelihood of future conditions and needs.  It's easy during the design process to identify a part of the house that could allow for a future renovation in case needs change or as money allows. A lot of clients have had situations where they design with the intention to knock out a wall in the future - sometimes for growing kids, sometimes to create more space or a first floor bedroom/ensuite if needed or desired.  If you are designing for a new build, you can even frame up a wall with door headers pre installed for future expansion. A little bit of imagination can pay off pretty handsomely if you try and consider multiple outcomes and uses when doing your design work.

Other Areas for Accessibility Considerations

Other areas that bear a lot of forethought in design are kitchens and bathrooms. There are so many reasons to reflect on how they can be made easy to use, keep clean, and provide a barrier free or full accessibility in most conditions. The idea behind barrier free spaces in buildings is that anyone can use them. That means a person using a wheelchair could get around independently in that space. In a bathroom, think of the challenges posed by typical things encountered there. Imagine getting into a deep tub if you were having issues with stability or had recent surgery on your knee or required wheels. Climbing into and out of tubs can be hard even when you're feeling great if you aren't paying attention. Talk about potentially slick surfaces!  So walk in and out showers (with or without a standalone tub) are a huge area where a bathroom can offer far greater long term access. Likewise, grab rails can be an easy installation and simple solution to all sorts of potentialities. We installed our first European style "wet room" this build using material purchased from a company called Trending Accessibilty. We love it. It's incredibly easy to clean the simple tile surfaces, and the long central drain is both good looking and useful in that all the mop water can be sent right down the drain. The glass wall is actually easy to clean, and prevents water from splashing all over the place. We can just walk right into our shower. Likewise, we could wheel in, if needed, as there's no curb to get over. We chose to install a free standing tub along with the shower for times when we want a soak, but a side benefit is that it stays clean - no shower curtain leaving soap scum at the edges, it's easy to wash and keep up with.

The kitchen is an area that I've already spent a lot of time considering how to make more accessible and barrier free because I don't crack the five foot height mark. So I've got plenty of experience with too tall shelves and difficult to reach areas. Kitchens pose special challenges and can be designed well to cover any capacity or life stage. For myself, I want to incorporate slightly lower countertops, but not so low that my taller husband couldn't comfortably cook. I want enough space between the countertops to flow in that comfortable triangle so idealized in kitchen design. For me, an L shaped kitchen will allow this and work stylistically. It would also be a great shape for someone with a wheelchair. Every point easily accessed with no galley shape restricting flow or turnaround. Some advanced consideration of appliances might point you toward ADA compliant options, like this.  In terms of cabinetry, interior drawer systems that pull out are easier to work with and require less stooping and hunting for "that thing" at the back of the cupboard. I have used these types of cabinet inserts in our latest kitchen and I love them!  For a cook of any ability level (and here I am referring to physical ability, not culinary skill), this is a great gift to have!  And fun!  Useful and immediately helpful. 

I also think some care and thought can and should be given to house cleaning whilst in the design phase. Stairs can be a pain to vacuum. Maybe you don't want them at all or want easy to sweep stair surfaces. Deep tubs are a tripping hazard and involve some hands and knee work for cleaning. Are they worth it to you? (No wrong answers here). How about locating the laundry. Do you like to line dry in the summer?  Having a door out nearby might be nice. Do you eat outside often?  Consider a pass through window or door that allows access to the outdoors right from the kitchen. Cleaning is a necessary chore that can be fun but sometimes isn't. Put some time into imagining how to have a cleaning program that can be flexible with you regardless of time or other constraints on ability. Storage solutions shouldn't require pulling out step stools all the time. Pay attention to landscape and factor in your interest and energy levels. Perhaps you want to consider ways to make some aspects of gardening require less bending and being hunched over. Raised beds and elevated planters could help with this. Gardens are such an interest area of mine that I think I could write a whole article on it, especially as I get older and learn to be more cagey in structuring my all day gardening adventures in consideration of my back muscles! 

Aging in Place is Different for Everybody

Final thoughts for this blog entry include emphasizing that design should ultimately be fun and liberating process. Since we're talking about planning for long term usability and function, liberating takes on multiple meanings. One shouldn't assume that a wheelchair or a massive change in mobility is in the cards for them. But all of our abilities will change as we age. Life is a spectrum, not a few age points on a line. Our needs change with age, with family size, with things that we want to pursue.  Well considered needs should be a part of designing our homes. Some extra thought can have a wonderful impact and give you more confidence that your home will continue to provide a refuge for you and your loved ones. If you are someone who has concerns now that will impact them in the future (joint issues, MS, being very short or very tall, just being thoughtful, you name it) designing a home that will rise to meet and assist you rather than foil you will be rewarding for years to come.

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 - 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.