July 13, 2014

Universal Design: Building a Wheelchair Accessible Home

This article was first published by at Yahoo Contributors but they are going out of business and the rights have reverted back to me. So if it seems out of order to the rest of the content here, that is the reason.
For most of our adult lives my husband and I had wanted to build a house. It took his stroke for us to finally take the plunge. We really had no choice. The two houses that we owned were not good candidates to retrofit for Don's newly acquired needs and there were virtually no wheelchair accessible houses on the market.

Finding a builder who was knowledgeable about Universal Design in a town of 600,000 should have been easy---after all, the concept has been around since the 1980s---but it wasn't. The Home Builder's Association only listed one builder who specialized in that market niche and although his houses were beautiful, customized homes his starting price was twice what we had wanted to spend. But he was passionate about building for the disabled and even though he knew we couldn't afford his services he was generous with his time and he gave us the confidence we needed to go forward with our project.

All totaled, we called twelve well-known builders. Some had never heard of the term Universal Design. We were shocked! Other builders never returned our calls which, we believe, was a form of prejudge against the disabled. The building company we finally went with had built three wheelchair accessible houses, so they said, but we quickly found out that we had to bring our own research in to the design stage of the project. They were willing and able, but we were the experts when it came to Don's special needs.

Universal Design is not rocket science, but there is a wide variety of choices and decisions to be made. Just as every disability is different, every house for the disabled will be different based on the options taken and the budget you have to work within. The core, essential features of Universal

Design homes are:

* at least one no-step entry way
* one floor living (or a budget for an elevator or chair lift)
* 36" exterior and interior doorways
* thresholds on the doorways that are flush with the floor
* a roll-under sink in the bathroom
* reinforced bathroom walls around the toilet and tub for the grab bars
* four foot wide hallways
* a five foot open radius in the centers of the bathroom and kitchen
* a roll-in shower stall or transfer tub that fits the special needs of your disability

In additions to above requirements, there are many optional features that can be incorporated into home to make it easier for someone with a disability. A few optional features of Universal Design that we included through out our house were: 1) lever-style door handles; 2) lower windowsills than the norm, so that Don gets a better view from a seated position; 3) single lever faucet handles; and 4) the carpeted rooms have a very short looped carpet with a dense commercial grade padding underneath that is glued on both sides. (The wrong choice of carpeting and padding can make it difficult-to-impossible for wheelchair and walker users.)

In the kitchen, a side-by-side refrigerate is a must-have for people in wheelchairs. We also included two microwaves---one low for Don, one high for me. The cupboard below our kitchen sink opens up fully from the counter-top to the floor so that Don can get his wheelchair up under the sink. A section of our counter-top is also open underneath and lower so that Don has a work station in the kitchen. There are many Universal Design options available for a kitchen including hydrolytic cabinets that go up and down and oven doors that open from side to side but this is an area of planning that will quickly drive up the cost of your home. The few options that we did include in the kitchen fit our life style perfectly with a minimal impact on our budget. Through out the house all our light fixtures are the type that requires no ladder to change a light bulb. That can be done with a long handled bulb changing tool.

Our garage takes advantage of several common Universal Design features. The overhead doors are eight foot high, instead of the standard seven so that a pop-up van will fit. The garage is also large enough to unload a wheelchair from the side or the back of a van. We also have a parking space for an electric wheel chair with an outlet for the charger and a grab bar for transfers. Our electrical service box is in the garage instead of the standard basement placement. Another feature that is a favorite of Don's is that the entire garage floor is a gently slope.This eliminates the need for a wooden ramp. To push himself around in his manual chair, Don only has the use of one arm and one leg and with a conventional ramp he would not have been able to roam freely from the house to the garage without my help. Our front sidewalk uses the same gentle sloping principle, so there is no visible ramp advertising that a disabled person lives within.

Anyone who is thinking of building a Universal Design house will find building component for the disabled all over the internet. A few books and magazines of plans are also available. Your local rehab hospital may also put out a pamphlet; ours did, as did the local Home Builder's Association. Most helpful was our local Advocates for the Disabled office; they had a specialist in Universal Design, disabilities and local building codes who reviewed our plans free of charge and made suggestions.

He also gave us a scale model wheelchair to run around the blueprint to look for ways to fine tune things like the swing of the doors, furniture and outlet placements, turn spaces for the wheelchair, etc. This was a very useful little tool. We also had my husband's occupational therapist go over the master bath plans so that we got it just right for his needs. (For resale purposes, we set up the master bath for a right-side disability and our spare bath is set up for a left-side disability but we've been told that most Universal Design houses sell by word of mouth---before they hit the open market---so resale value is not really an issue with these houses.)

If you decide to build a Universal Design house, my advice would be to start your research early and take your time doing it. Don't just build for what your disability is today, think down the road ten or fifteen years. Don't sign off on your blueprint until you are satisfied with your choice of options and the price. The Universal Design features that we included added just under $4,000 above the cost of building a conventional house and it was tax deductible.

A house built for a disabled person does not need to look any different from its neighboring houses. If you didn't see the grab bars in our bathrooms, no one would ever guess that our home is Universal Design. I honestly don't understand why able-bodied baby boomers who are building don't have the foresight to incorporate Universal Design into their plans. Even now that the house is almost a year old, we still can't believe that this beautiful, well-thought out and functional perfect house is really ours. Our only regret is that it took a stroke to get it built. ©

Published by Jean Riva

Jean's main passion in the writing world centers around educating the general population about stroke related language disorders, caregiver issues, widowhood and growing older---often using humor to do so.


Bella Rum said...

What an information-packed article, and what a great help this would be to anyone over 50 ( or even younger) who's getting ready to build a house. As I was reading it, I thought the same thing about baby boomers: Why don't they think ahead on this. I listen to a guy in my area on the radio, Richard McKann. He's a home maintenance/repair guy and gives all kinds of useful advice. A woman called in one day who had trouble with her toilet. She was going to replace it and wanted to know what brand she should get. She mentioned somewhere in the conversation that she'd had knee surgery and was in her mid-fifties. He tried to talk her into putting up safety bars and getting a tall toilet. She exclaimed, "I'm not that bad yet." He told her he was a little younger than she and replaced his toilet with a taller one because he knows he's staying in his house and isn't getting any younger. He said, "Why wait? May as well do it now if you know you're aging in place."

As you know, my husband and I are looking for the right house, and there are pitifully few in our area and even fewer on the market at any given time. This is a subject dear to my heart.

Jean R. said...

I just don't think people understand how difficult it is to get a house refitted for a disability when it's needed. People end up in nursing homes because they can't go home to their houses as is. I read a statistic that over 30% of people in nursing homes could manage at home if their homes where set up better but their families aren't willing or able to make the changes.

There is only a couple of condo communities in this that are built with Universal Design and they are high end, above the average income. The apartment complexes in my area with Universal Design are government subsidized and our income, at the time of Don's stroke, was too high to quality to live there.

I have seen many families struggle to get even the basic things put in their house after a health scare...tall toilets, grab bars, ramps, a few wider door ways. It's dumb not to do these things when you are remodeling.