Universal design for barrier-free living

For centuries, homes were designed and built for the lifespan of the building, not for the lifespan of the people who live in them. We need to think of designing and building for the lifespan of the people – all people.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says one person in four will experience some sort of disability at least temporarily during their lifetime. These disabilities will limit the way we live in our homes, either temporarily or permanently. 

Most healthy people think of handicapped persons as those who are confined to a wheelchair. People who use a cane or crutches, are blind, deaf, mute, mentally or emotionally disadvantaged, obese or who have one or more of a wide range of illnesses or physical conditions could (and rightly should) be considered to be people with special architectural needs. Also, there are people who are completely healthy, but who are not average. Many of these people also have special needs. 

Practical design suggestions for the kitchen

This brings into the discussion some of the changes that can be accomplished to make life easier for not only people with special needs, but for nearly everyone. Some of these ideas are able to be retrofitted into existing homes; others require more work for an existing home or need to be designed into a new home. 

The kitchen is the most expensive and most-used room in the home. Most kitchens are impractical for disabled users. Keeping the basic work triangle of the sink, range/oven and refrigerator intact is important. We can expand around that principle. Most electrical outlets are on the backsplash, out of reach for many people. Placing some of them at the front of the cabinets makes working easier.

Consider a side-by-side refrigerator/freezer. A wheelchair patients and children can easily access items that are needed. Refrigerators are available that actually become a part of the base cabinets, further simplifying access.

The sink and cooktop range can be placed on a lower countertop, perhaps 32 in. above the floor with range controls on the top front surface where they are easily accessed. Standard countertop height is 36 in., making some tasks difficult. A wall oven can be placed at a height so that the center of the oven is at eye level. The dishwasher should be raised higher than standard undercounter dishwashers to facilitate easier loading and unloading. Instead of a double-bowl sink, try two single-bowl sinks and place the faucets between the two sinks, one of which should be a shallow bowl. Multiple counter heights are not common, but very practical. In order to effectively reach the sink in a wheelchair, the space under the sink can be left open with spring-loaded cabinet doors and no kick plate.

None of the appliance doors should interfere with other appliance doors or cabinet doors. Make sure the entire kitchen can accommodate two people working at the same time and that there is a 5-ft. diameter unobstructed turning circle for ease of turning. 

Counters should also be made of materials that will withstand the scalding heat of pans just removed from the range and oven. Make sure there are no sharp corners or edges that may cause injury. The cabinets also need to be examined for usability. For wheelchair access, the kick plate should be 8 in. high. Slide out drawers and trays improve accessibility. Because wall cabinets are virtually useless to wheelchair users, pantry cabinets with swing out shelves for easy access are recommended. Limit high wall cabinets to seldom-used items and for the use of healthy people of tall stature. Mechanical systems are available that raise and lower wall cabinets electrically.  

Bathrooms and bedrooms

Secondary bathrooms tend to be thought of as just a bathroom for children and/or guests. They are usually designed around the three principal fixtures: sink, toilet and tub/shower. As a result, many of these bathrooms are somewhat less than functional for a lot of people. Not much thought is given to the spacing of those appliances, the needs of those who will be using them and how they will get around while using this necessary room.

In a typical small bathroom, accessing the tub and sink controls can be awkward. For a universal bathroom, try a roll-in shower. The toilet should have a space next to it wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair for ease of transfer; 3 ft. is recommended. Knurled stainless steel grab bars should be in the proper locations in reinforced walls. The tub area should also have grab bars appropriately located. The sink should be unobstructed under it with a drawer base alongside. All exposed plumbing pipes need to be insulated. 

In an accessible bedroom, there should be enough room around the bed to accommodate a wheelchair. For a totally incapacitated person, the ceiling needs be reinforced to accommodate an overhead track. Clothes closets should be located near the bathroom. Consider the use of a closet carousel. Accessibility to hanging clothes is much easier. Adjustable shelves are advisable, but space to maneuver is even more important. 

Miscellaneous considerations

Doors should be a minimum of 3 ft. wide, not just for wheelchair access, but for simple functionality. Eight-ft.-high doors should be standard if possible. Doors should be equipped with lever-operated single-action handles instead of twist-action doorknobs. This is helpful for people with arthritis, as well as people who have their hands full. 

Hallways should be a minimum of 4 ft. wide with a scuff pad type baseboard at least 12 in. high. Try to keep the main floor unobstructed and on a single level. No steps means less chance of injury. For a two-story home, consider installing an elevator. If an elevator is not in the budget, consider a stair lift. Some manufacturers offer stair lifts for curved staircases, but for the sake of the budget, try to keep staircases straight.

For tall wheelchair accessible vans, an 8-ft.-high overhead door operated by an automatic garage door opener with an integrated light will work nicely. The garage should also be wide enough to accommodate that van with a wheelchair alongside it and leaving enough room for the other vehicle. That might mandate a three-car garage. The floor should be slightly sloped but should be stepless to the main living area. 

Try to build on as flat and level a lot as possible. From the driveway to the front door, the slope should not exceed a gradient of 1 in 12, and there should be no steps to impede a wheelchair. 

Standard wall outlets are usually 14 in. above the floor and wall switches are usually 42 in. above the floor. In a universal home, outlets should be raised to 18 in. and switches should be lowered to 36 in. 

For the hearing impaired, audible doorbells should be augmented by at least one flashing light. This is also a good idea for telephones. For the visually impaired, audible warning signals should be wired into the home for such things as overheated cooking utensils. Consider hard-wiring a home for an audio-visual system, for surround sound, intercom and security system. 

One of the main goals of universal design is to allow disabled people to live as independently as possible. However, many people with severe disabilities are incapable of caring for themselves and need around-the-clock care. One way to assist the disabled is to provide a second master suite, guest suite or apartment close to the patient’s quarters. 

In the case of the visually impaired, a seeing eye dog can provide great assistance and be a faithful companion. Seeing eye dogs need to be readily available to their masters, which may require that they have a small room adjoining the master suite or other accessible suite. Dogs do not usually require a lot of room, so a room the size of a small walk-in closet would suffice.

Adaptive reuse for accessibility

Although remodeling design will encompass most of the same features, there are other considerations with remodeling or retrofitting an existing house for accessibility. The first thing to consider is the condition of the existing house and the feasibility of remodeling it as opposed to razing it and building new. A qualified design professional, a knowledgeable builder and a structural engineer can determine if such a project is financially reasonable. 

If you get the green light to remodel, consider:

  • Where will you live while your house is being remodeled? 
  • How will you deal with unexpected problems that are uncovered during demolition? 
  • Can you afford any cost overruns that are inevitable?
  • Will there be locally mandated impact fees assessed if the house is torn down and a new one built on the same site? How much will those fees be? 

These are very important decisions you need to make before embarking on such a project.

Starting with a clean slate is always easier, but realize we cannot always build new. Sometimes, remodeling for accessibility is the only answer. In such cases, all aspects of the project must be thoroughly examined and the benefits weighed against the drawbacks. The total cost of the project in time and money invested must be tuned as closely as possible before making a final decision on the direction of the project.

Aging in place

As people age, their lives change; yet they want to remain as independent as possible. Designing a universal home is the best way to assist people so that they can remain in their homes for as long as possible without forcing their displacement into a congregate facility that they may not welcome. In order to accomplish this goal, the needs and desires of a single individual or a couple should be discussed and evaluated well in advance and incorporated within any design, whether it is a new home design or an adaptive reuse remodel.

It is important to note that no building can be guaranteed to be completely barrier-free to every person. The best that can be accomplished is to design a home that will be as barrier-free as possible for as many individual circumstances as possible, or to custom design a home for each individual’s personal circumstances.