Barrier-Free

September 11, 2021: If you want people to visit you and you want to be a gracious host, you need a home that’s barrier-free. Every one of us is a sprained ankle or aging knee away from needing a home that’s easy to navigate. At minimum, this means a zero-clearance entry and a bathroom on the first floor. If you want to “age-in-place” the list gets longer.

My one-story house is designed to be convertible to a fully accessible home. The major features are in place, but some things need to be added and some things subtracted. Safe passage from car to inside is key and as it is now, my design falls short. I have yet to install a smooth, non-slip walkway from the street to my front door. The entry porch is covered but not enclosed, and wind and rain do get in. The front door and door to the garage have ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) low-threshold sills, but both are a 7” step up from grade. Future plans call for a non-slip deck that will connect the two doorways. Of course, a directly attached garage with a concrete slab continuous to the street would be ideal.

The entry door as well as the interior doors are 36” wide and have lever handles, not knobs. If fumbling for keys is a problem, the deadbolt can easily be switched out for a keyless punch or fingerprint pad. There’s negotiating and approach space on either side of doorways, especially important when a walker or wheelchair is used. The windows are casements and awnings with smooth crank mechanisms—much easier to operate than sliders or double-hungs. However, some windows are too high to access and the patio door slider is heavy. Motorized openers controlled by hand-held remotes could be installed.

Both bathrooms are on the first floor, and can be made fully accessible with some adaptation. While the space is compact, it meets the basic ADA clearance dimensions. Public restrooms are huge to allow for a wheelchair turning radius of 60 inches, but at home a T-turn can serve—in my case by using the adjacent bedroom or hallway space. For good reason, public restrooms have outswinging doors. Should someone fall in my master bathroom, the sliding barn door provides rescue access. However, the main bathroom door swings in—a potential hazard.

The bathroom sink is set in a 36” high vanity cabinet with counter, providing a good gripping edge. The working space is nice to have, but at 42” wide it takes up a lot of room. If side-transfer from a chair to the toilet is needed, the vanity could be switched out for a wall-hung sink. This arrangement would also allow a wheelchair user to approach and use the sink at a height that works for them. Any exposed supply or waste pipes should be insulated or covered to prevent harm. The mirror could be lowered or switched out for one that can be adjusted at a downward angle.

The bathroom sink and shower faucets have single-lever ADA controls. The toilet is ADA height (16-3/8” plus height of seat) and is spaced away from the sidewall for an 18” clearance to the centerline. The one-piece design and skirted trapway are a bonus for easy cleaning. The slow-close seat is quiet. It has a push-button flush but better would be a lever control for those with arthritis or other manual challenges.

I installed 3/4” plywood blocking between the studs before the drywall was installed to provide anchorage for a 52” long ADA grab bar that doesn’t look like a grab bar. I can add a second grab bar behind the toilet if needed. Recommended height is between 33-36” above the floor. The toilet paper holder also meets recommendations. The plywood blocking continues across the wall and through the shower.

The shower is curbless. Before the concrete truck arrived, my carpenter placed a 2×6 frame the size of the shower to block the pour. Later, the tilesetter filled it with Sakcrete, a Schulter pan, and a 1” grid of non-slip tiles. The shower has a 36” wide opening, and measures 36” x 72”. No door or curtain is needed—eliminating a possibility of grasping for something that’s not stable (and eliminating a cleaning hassle).

A vertical grab bar at the opening serves upon entry or exit and when standing or sitting. A movable shower seat could be used, and is more flexible than a built in tiled seat. Placing the shower control at the entrance instead of in the end wall would be a safer choice. Likewise, a movable or handheld shower head on a slide bar would be more accommodating. The anti-scald faucet I chose has a dual-control that allows you to maintain a preset temperature while adjusting the flow.

In the kitchen, food is within arms reach in the pantry, and pots & pans are in the full extension drawers. Everyday dishes now stored on open shelves above the counter could be relocated in the drawers. For future wheelchair access, one or two of the standard height (36”) base cabinets (and the sink cabinet) could be removed and replaced with a 30” high counter with knee space below. Instead of knobs, I chose long graspable handles. Note the ends of the handles return into the cabinet face instead of sticking out where they can catch on clothing.

My straight-line plan is good—it allows for easy sliding of heavy objects between sink, stove, and refrigerator. My stove could be switched out in favor of an induction cooktop with front controls for better safety and access. My refrigerator could be switched out for a side-by-side, for access to the freezer. My clothes washer/dryer could be switched out to a front-loader.

Good lighting is essential as we age and is a safety measure for everyone. I’ve found that my choice of window size and placement has worked well to create an evenly lit interior whether it’s sunny or cloudy outside. One advantage of a small house is that each room (excepting the bathrooms) can have windows on 2 sides, eliminating glare as well as dark areas.

Just as important is the quality of artificial light in your home. Incandescent bulbs replicate natural daylight perfectly, with a CRI (color rendering index) rating of 100. This makes our interior surroundings look more normal and allow us to see details more clearly, easing eye fatigue and strain. But no question, LED bulbs are they way to go because they use 75%-90% less electricity and can last decades. However, a CRI rating of 95 is about tops. The track lights in my kitchen have a CRI of 80 (considered “good”) and are easily adjusted for shadow-free work. The bathroom mirror light has a CRI of 90. There is also a wet-rated LED bulb in the shower.

Electrical switches and outlets are within ADA standards at 42” and 16” above the floor. I chose standard toggle switches, but rocker switches are easier for most people to use. The main panel is within reach in case of emergency or a tripped breaker.

Control of the interior environment is important as we age and tend to be more sensitive to hot and cold. The thermostat can be controlled by a hand-held remote. The bedrooms are pre-wired for electric-resistance baseboard heaters if needed. And most switches are wired to control the top outlets in a room, for easy operation of fans, lamps, or other electric devices.

What is more life-giving than fresh air? My home was designed from outside to inside to resist mold, mildew, and pest infestations. The materials and finishes were selected for their non-toxic qualities. Here’s a quick run-down, but please see my other blog posts for more specific information:

  • SLAB radon mitigation system, non-toxic zero-VOC sealer
  • WALLS & TRIM non-toxic zero-VOC paint
  • CABINETS, DOORS, COUNTERTOPS low formaldehyde plywood/particleboard, low-VOC finish
  • RUG natural wool, no backing
  • HEATING & COOLING ductless, quiet, single source forced air
  • VENTILATION ductless, ultra-quiet filtered fresh air for each room

An accessible and barrier-free house not only has safety and functional features built in, it’s clean and uncluttered, with visual contrast throughout. A fall can be devastating. Near-at-hand storage keeps household objects in their place. A continuous slab floor means no steps, interior thresholds or transitions—except at the tiled showers. I do have an area rug in the living room, but not in traffic areas. I’ve found that the concrete is slippery when wet, and caution people coming out of the shower or when spills happen in the kitchen. Contrasting colors at changes in surfaces are important visual aids. The shower’s tiled floor is darker than the adjacent slab. The countertops are black and darker than the cabinets and adjacent walls. The doors are darker than the walls. Let me know if you have any questions, suggestions, or experiences that would help us all think smarter about inclusive design.

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