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Editor's Notepad

Editor's Notepad

Designing and Building Homes That Stay Accessible

comments (0) September 9th, 2011 in Blogs
ScottG Scott Gibson, contributing writer

A curbless shower makes a bathroom more practical for people with limited mobility.
An elevator may seem like a big investment, but it can be a great deal if it means not giving up the home you love.
A curbless shower makes a bathroom more practical for people with limited mobility.Click To Enlarge

A curbless shower makes a bathroom more practical for people with limited mobility.


Maybe we're getting smarter about houses. Instead of assuming we'll be able to move to a more accommodating space as age and physical infirmities catch up with us, more Americans are adapting their existing homes or designing new ones with the realities of old age in mind.

Accessible design covers a wide swath. Curb-free showers big enough to handle a wheelchair, entryways that incorporate low-slope ramps, and even residentially sized elevators all are potential if not fairly obvious features.

But an equally important design element is the built-in flexibility allowing the house to change right along with our needs, even if we can't foresee exactly what they will be.

And while accessible or universal designs seem to be aimed mainly at older or disabled people, they also make the house more appealing and more useful for folks of all sizes and ages.

Designing the best last house

A home for the next 50 years

Wheelchair-accessible bathroom

Q&A: Wheelchair-accessible shower pan

Building new means thinking ahead

Bob and Sharon O'Brien's home outside Ithaca, N.Y., is a good example of how advance planning can pay off years down the road.

Their four must-have features included accessibility, low maintenance, energy efficiency, and easy day-to-day living. The three levels of the 3,937-sq.-ft. home are linked by an elevator, so an inability to climb stairs will never be the precurser to a forced move.

If the house seems big for a couple of baby boomers approaching retirement, it's because it includes spaces that will allow the O'Briens to enjoy themselves at home when they're not working quite as much. These extra spaces include a woodshop, a sewing room, and a large deck, allowing them to pursue a variety of post-retirement activities without moving.

The outside of the house is finished with highly durable materials that will keep maintenance to a minimum: stone veneer, cedar shingles, and a long-wearing composite roof. Building techniques that save energy, including generous amounts of insulation, will keep operating costs low.

Designing a home so all essential spaces are on a single floor is another, and equally successful, approach--and one that doesn't require an elevator.

Renovating for accessibility

Architect John P.S. Salmen chose renovation over new construction. He and his wife looked for a run-down house in a good neighborhood where they could walk to essential community services. That process took all of two years, but finding the right kind of community was in itself an important goal.

As he explained in a May 2004 article in Fine Homebuilding, they picked a house in poor condition because the cost of renovation would be high. And that, he said, is often what discourages homeowners from making the kinds of changes a house needs.

posted in: Blogs, architecture, safety
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