Building an Accessible House
When building a new home, you have a great opportunity to focus on maximum accessibility. We were able to tour a house that was built with this goal in mind.
The owners are a retired couple, Robert and Jean, from Minnesota. Robert has multiple sclerosis, and uses either arm canes or a wheelchair to get around. As Robert's MS intensified, they looked into have their old house remodeled, but soon decided it would be more cost effective to build.
The features in this house aren't intended only for people with some kind of disability, but are good ideas for everyone to think about when building a house. Especially when they hope it will be a home they can grow old in.
The builder of this house specializes in this type of construction, and now builds about half conventional and half accessible homes. Because of his experience, he was able to help Robert and Jean incorporate their ideas into the home, and more importantly, give them the guidance they needed.
Building this house with accessible features and designs cost about 5% more than conventional construction. That's not bad when you consider what it costs to remodel an existing home for accessibility. And you might not get back what you put into the remodel when it comes time to sell the house.
The accessible features of these houses aren't going to be drawbacks for resale. They don't have the "industrial" or "hospital" feel that you'd expect. In fact, one of the accessible homes this builder built was bought by a young couple with kids. They didn't need the accessibility, except when their parents visited, they just liked the open floor plan and the "friendly" features.
From the outside the house doesn't look any different from any other new house in the neighborhood.
As you walk up you notice that it sits a little lower than normal and that there is no step up to the front door. The front door sits at grade so you can roll a wheelchair from the sidewalk straight into the house. And the sidewalk goes all the way around the house and connects to a patio in back.
To make this work, during construction they installed the foundation as they normally would with 12-inch block. But on top of the last course they ran one more course of 6-inch block. When they installed the floor joists, they set them on the 12-inch blocks and butt them up to the 6-inch course. This way the 6-inch block acts as the barrier between the soil and the framing.
They also ran ice-and-water protection (like the stuff you put on roofs) around the base of the building to give them another layer of protection between the soil and the framing. Plus, before siding, they installed a strip of sheet metal right at grade that the first course of siding went over.
General Living Space
Most of the living space is on the main floor. The large entry and wide hallways give it an open feeling.
The windows are taller and installed lower than standard windows; about 22 inches off the floor. This gives you a nice view whether you're standing or sitting in a wheelchair.
There are tandem latches on the casement windows. This means the two handles are linked together, so if you open the bottom one the top one opens too.
They incorporated a lot of bi-fold doors and pocket doors in the house. These waste less floor space than swinging doors, and they're easier to use for someone with limited mobility. They have large lever handles that you can open with just one finger.
Rocker switches for the lights are easier to use than standard switches. They help whether you've got stiff joints in your fingers, or just an armful of packages.
All of the wall outlets are about 20 inches off the floor instead of the usual 12 inches. This means less bending over when plugging things in, and Robert can reach them from his wheelchair.
The door leading from the house to the garage has an automatic door opener. A button on the wall opens it up, and it stays open long enough for someone to get through, then closes.
The garage doors are 8-feet high, which is higher than normal. This is to accommodate a raised roof van.
Downstairs they've got a family room. The stairway down to the basement has a platform lift. Normally it's parked at the bottom so the stairs can be used by anyone, but when Robert wants to use it he brings it up and rolls on to it. At the bottom, the platform fits into a recessed floor so he can roll right off. The lift was an expensive option to the house, around eight thousand dollars, but they feel it was worth it.
The living room down stairs also has a gas fireplace with a remote starter so they can have instant fire from wherever they're sitting.
The subfloor of the bathroom is about an inch lower than the rest of the house. This allowed enough room to put in a ceramic tile floor with a mortar bed, and still have the floor finish flush with the carpet in the bedroom for a smooth rolling surface.
The lower subfloor also allowed them to slope the floor down to a drain in the roll-in shower area. This way you don't need a curb to separate the shower from the rest of the bathroom.
During construction of the bathroom they put in several 2x10's at a standard height for bracing the grab bars. They also installed plywood on the outside of all the studs to support any other bars or shower chairs they might need in the future.
Putting in this bracing is a good idea for anyone building a new home. The small added cost of putting in supports now definitely out weighs the cost of having to tear into the walls later.
The sink vanity is open at the front so Jean can sit up to it with a chair or Robert can roll his wheelchair up to it. It's important to make sure something is protecting the knees from the hot pipes.
There are sturdy support bars around the toilet. And the walk-in closet is right in the bathroom, so it's easier to go straight from the shower to the dressing area.
The kitchen has a lot of little features that make cooking easier for Robert and Jean.
One of the pull-out breadboards is a little lower for Robert to work at. The outlets are on the front of the cabinets, so are the switches for the sink light and the disposer. The switches for the range vent and the light are hidden inside a cabinet where Robert can reach them.
The cabinets under the sink have doors that are retractable so Robert can wheel up to the sink. There's also a window in between the countertop and the upper cabinets that's at eye-level for Robert in his chair.