Meeting a universal need

Designing for universal access

Designing for universal access

March 03, 2003|by Chris Copley

When I think about adapting a house for an older resident with limited mobility, I think of a handicapped-accessible ramp. But a ramp, so to speak, only gets a foot in the door.

Kurt Cushwa, architect with Design-Build Architects in Hagerstown, invited me to test-drive a wheelchair up the modest ramp at his home's front door. As we chatted about accomodating houses to older residents, I sat in Cushwa's wheelchair and rolled around his garage floor. Operating a wheelchair is easy to figure out - intuitive, Cushwa said. It's even fun, he added, as long as you can stand up and get out when you want to.

But what if I couldn't stand up? What if my mobility were limited? Then I'd have a hard time getting in Cushwa's house.


The wide, brick ramp leading to his house is not long or steep. I wheeled up it well enough. But then I got to the door. With my toes against the door, it was a stretch to reach the handle. Cushwa helped, opening the door - both French doors, actually, to give me plenty of room. After 60 seconds of strenuous effort and clever thinking, I wheeled my 200 pounds over the 1 1/2-inch-tall weatherstrip at the foot of the door frame.

"This is all (built according to) code," he assured me, with a grin.

Getting back out was worse. Cushwa had to help.

Accessibility is key

Getting in the front door is only a small sample of the problems architects face in designing housing for older residents whose mobility decreases as they age. Many older Americans turn to walkers, canes and wheelchairs to help them get from place to place in their communities and their homes.

People in wheelchairs need plenty of space to maneuver, Cushwa said. Household halls should be at least 5 feet wide. Interior doorways must be wide enough to permit wheelchairs to pass. Showers must be barrier-free and big enough to let a wheelchair roll in.

Accessibility - to shower, to kitchen counters and appliances, to washer and dryer, to all necessities in the house - is a key concept in designing houses for Americans with limited mobility. Robert Stouffer, another architect at Design-Build, said bathrooms are a good case in point.

"I believe there are 16,000 houses in Hagerstown," he said. "And I think 15,000 of them have 5-by-8-foot bathrooms. It's too small."

Stouffer said he recently dealt with bathroom-accessibility issues in his own life.

"Two weeks ago, I put grab bars in my mother's bathroom," he said. "She's an active woman and needs those. The more a person can do for themselves the better they are."

Making a kitchen accessible

Cushwa said making a kitchen accessible is tough.

"No one has come up with a handicapped-accessible kitchen," he said. "High cabinets in a kitchen are useless. So you end up with more base cabinets. But where you have base cabinets, you can't roll under the counter. You need a roll-in pantry - with a five-foot turning radius. And twice as much shelving down low."

Stouffer said appliances must also be properly positioned for accessiblity.

"Build in the microwave and oven, mounted lower than normal," he said. "And think how, in a wheel chair, would you open that oven?"

Aging in place

Cushwa said California architects have been developing an approach to architecture called Universal Design.

"The idea is that instead of making one house handicapped-accessible and one not, you make it so houses work for the family over time," he said. "Everybody groups disability into large groups. The vast amount of disabled do not use wheelchairs."

But many people, young or old, have difficulty walking up and down steps or even up and down hallways. The Universal Design concept says houses should be designed to accomodate this limited mobility, which many people experience as they age.

"A lot of people don't want to leave their comfort zone to retire," said Marie Del Bianco, research analyst with National Association of Home Builders Research Center in Upper Marlboro, Md. "They want to stay in the general area where their friends are. In the absense of providing steps in (handicapped-accessible) housing, it's going to fall back on staying in place in your own home."

Del Bianco promotes LifeWise, a program of the NAHB research center that encourages architects to design homes that serve the needs of people throughout their lives. She said these needs aren't always accomodated.

"My parents have friends who say the real limitation is the size of the first-floor bathroom," Del Bianco said. "These tend to be tiny powder rooms or cramped full baths."

There's nothing like real-life experience to foster understanding. Cushwa said his office has a policy that new staff architects spend some time in a wheelchair. Learning how to get around and use cabinets, tables and closets in an office is good training for designing homes that accomodate a variety of people.

"When you design, you keep in mind not just what the (building) code calls for but what really works," he said. "A lot of things that are needed are not in the regulations."

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