Creating Accessible Homes

Entrances, bathrooms and kitchens create logistical and aesthetic challenges.


Man in wheelchair in kitchen

Photo by: Jupiterimages


By: Craig A. Shutt

Retrofitting homes to provide ease and comfort for the disabled takes more than simply meeting accessibility standards. "You have to listen to your clients," says Robin Burrill, a co-owner of Curb Appeal Renovations in Fort Worth, Texas.

Curb Appeal recently renovated a home for a wheelchair-bound man who was 6'7" tall and his wife, who also was 6 feet tall. He uses a higher wheelchair and requires other adjustments to standards for typical disabled people. "You should follow the guidelines, but you have to meet their needs," Burrill says.

Current standards, for instance, require 36-inch-wide doors, but remodelers consider those to be "knucklebusters," to use the term favored by Bill Mavrakis at T&L Design-Build in Canton, Ohio. He tries to create 42-inch-wide doorways to aid wheelchair users who have to pilot themselves.

Exterior home entrances pose the first challenge for designers. Most stay away from the home's front, putting ramps at the rear or in the garage. But the required 1:12 slope ratio "can take up an entire garage stall," Mavrakis says. He often uses reconditioned or used lifts, building a 4.5-foot-square platform for maneuvering. Dennis Gehman, president of Gehman Custom Builder Inc. in Harleysville, Pa., typically creates L-shaped ramps to compress the needed space. "Each one is really custom," he says. Landscaping often helps the ramps blend with the home's exterior.

Bathrooms create the largest challenge, as they typically are small spaces that lack maneuvering room. "We try to expand the bathroom into an adjacent room or create a new bath from a spare room," Gehman says. "Curbless" showers that allow wheelchairs to roll right into them are popular for these spaces. Dave Cerami, president of Home Tech Renovations in Philadelphia, sometimes notches the existing floor joists to slope the shower correctly.

In kitchens, removing floor cabinets around sinks and installing plumbing pipes tight against the back wall can allow wheelchair users to roll up to the sink. Setting sinks and other countertops at 30 inches rather than 36 also aids disabled cooks.

The key challenge for remodelers is that homeowners want a look that is functional but also aesthetically pleasing. "When they have to sell their home," explains Burrill, "they don't want to sell it as having a handicapped bathroom but as having a very nice, high-end, larger bath." That can be achieved by placing half-walls rather than bars around the toilet and installing thin but sturdy rails that resemble towel racks. Mavrakis often uses the curbless shower base but installs it with cultured marble or ceramic tile walls "so it doesn't look like a barrier-free shower."

Designers expect that this type of work will grow and product lines are expanding to accommodate that growth. The need will become particularly great as aging baby boomers look to remain in their homes or see their own parents move in with them. "Some are finding that it's cheaper to remodel the home to fit their needs than to move into a nursing home," Mavrakis says.

For more tips and requirements for designing for disabled homeowners, visit the Americans with Disabilities Act website.

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