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Next Time You Design A House: Codes

Erick Mikiten, AIA, LEED-AP

This month we’re going to consider accessibility in housing. The ADA and CBC don’t directly apply to single-family homes, but you could easily argue that this locus of family and life needs more attention. After all, one of an architect’s jobs is to help clients anticipate their needs. Recent research has begun to illustrate the intersection between disabilities and aging, which has significant implications on residential design goals.

It’s easy to assume that people with disabilities are in a separate group, but the fact is that most of us will move into that group during some part of our lives, some temporarily and others permanently. Aging shows us, in incremental degrees, where our homes fail us. Even for a young person, a fall or an accident can reveal the many barriers that exist in our homes to performing simple everyday tasks.

Consider this: 17 percent of women aged 16 to 64 have one or more disabilities. For the 65 and over group, it’s 43 percent. And of course that increases over time.

It’s not just the percentage of people who experience periods of disability. It’s also important for an architect to at least understand common disabilities and design with some sensitivity. For example, 27 percent of people over 65 report having a lot of trouble hearing. What does this have to do with design? Blaring televisions are a common complaint between residents of a household, so an architect could consider sound attenuation strategies in the rooms most likely to contain a television. Resilient channels between the wall board and the studs can make a difference. So can insulation in the interior wall cavities. There are STC (Sound Transmission Coefficient) requirements for walls and floor/ceiling assemblies that are required by the CBC between dwelling units, but why not apply some of those to single-family homes as well?

Mobility challenges can easily arise, so why not put blocking in the bathroom walls so that installation of grab bars can be done in an hour if needed. Blocking should surround the toilet area, bath tub, shower walls, and any long stretch of wall where you could imagine a handrail (or a towel bar, for that matter, which is often used as a grab bar whether you intend it to be or not). My standard approach for showers is to install 1/2” plywood everywhere, behind the tile backer board. That way, nobody has to remember where the 2x blocking is within the wall for a grab bar, to allow attachment at any angle or location, they will have a solid attachment.

Don’t forget doorways. Simply incorporating 36 inch doors can allow someone to remain in his house, even if a walker or wheelchair is needed, short or long term. If that feels too wide for a remodel project where you’d like to match existing doors, specify at least 32 inch doors with swing-clear hinges. Also called offset hinges, these move the door outside the doorway opening, so that the door thickness isn’t in the way.

If you can, include a stair-free entry into the house, or at least consider where a ramp could be added if needed later. Recognize that the entrance will make it possible for guests and aging parents to at least visit. If you have a project with one step, I can pretty much guarantee that you can have a zero-step threshold. Providing cover above for rain can help make this more realistic. And GreenPoints requires entrance rain protection anyway, so you’re “covered” here in two ways.

Don’t forget vision. More than two-thirds of adults over 65 have vision impairments. The causes include cataracts, macular degeneration, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy. Architects should anticipate that the need for good lighting will go up as we age, and build in some excess capacity. A great lighting designer friend says “always over-light and dim down.” With LED fixtures this is easy to do and still meet Title 24.

A little advanced planning, thoughtful and totally inconspicuous, can make the difference  between living at home and the incredible upheaval of needing to move (especially if you’re in the midst of dealing with a new disability). Think about your own grand parents – if they are still at home, think about the upheaval for them to have to relocate just because their beloved home doesn’t work for them anymore.

A home that accommodates its owner can also make the difference between being able to care for oneself and needing help from other family members. Having a sense of self-control and independence is a powerful feeling, and can lead to a more positive attitude and better physical health.

And finally, with the huge increase in ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit) projects in California and the changes in State ADU Law, there are more people pursuing ADUs with the idea of retiring there or bringing their aging parents in to live there. So it’s all the more important that we as architects ensure that these and other residential projects are designed to be what I call future-proof. So go forth and accessify.

Kerwin Lee, AIA, CASp

Kerwin’s Comments

The concept of aging in place is not a new concept. Many senior living facilities have multiple levels of accommodation from independent care, assisted care and beyond. This is just good business practice.

Although the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and California Building codes do not directly apply to single family dwellings, they do if you have a public accommodation within the dwelling. If you have a home business and have clients come to you, you are a public accommodation and all the rules for disabled access apply, from parking, to path of travel to even toilets rooms.