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Universal accessibility

by David M. Brown on Sep 4, 2015

Whether you have a young family, are an empty-nester or fall somewhere in-between, moving into a new home offers plenty of opportunity for planning ahead for all of life’s “what-ifs” — one of which is would your home ever need to accommodate someone who is elderly and/or disabled in some way. And that’s where “universal access” comes into play.

But first, three experts offer their definition of universal access.

Jennifer Longdon, Phoenix-based accessible housing advocate: “Universal access removes barriers so that everyone can use space with the greatest amount of autonomy. It allows the most flexibility in how space is used and by whom.”

Craig Powell, vice president of construction for Shea Homes Arizona: “Universal access is the design of products, services and environments to accommodate elderly people and people with disabilities or special needs through assistive technologies and, in our case, architecture.”

Peter Fischer, owner of Phoenix-based Access.Architectural: “The intent of universal access in residential dwellings is to design homes and other residential structures that are visitable, usable and safe for everyone, including persons with disabilities.

Planning ahead

“Universal access allows new-home buyers the option of planning ahead with universal access principles that would enhance their ability to remain in their homes during periods of temporary, developing or permanent functional needs,” said Fischer, who was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at
age 4 and uses a power wheelchair for day-to-day mobility.

Some of these features include one-story plans, zero-grade (no-step) entries, hallways and doorways wide enough for a wheelchair, at least one ground-floor bathroom with a turning radius that can accommodate a wheelchair user, the use of lever handles for doors and faucets, rocker switches for lights, good overall lighting and environmental controls that all members of the household can use.

“These features can — and should — be integrated into the home, including the garage, at any phase. The earlier in the project, the more seamless and cost-effective,” Longdon said.

It’s important to note that a zero-grade entry not only accommodates a person who uses a wheelchair or other mobility device but also serves the needs of a family with strollers or children’s toys so they don’t have to be lifted over that particular threshold. Meanwhile, rocker switches and lever handles allow any person with limited hand function to turn on lights and open doors.

“At some point in a lifetime, every person will face disability for some period of time,” Longdon said. “It might be a torn ankle while playing tennis, it might be a difficult pregnancy, it might be a more permanent disability or perhaps a friend or family member who is born with or acquires a disability.” 

Determining your needs

At Shea Homes, a construction manager or vice president will meet with customers to determine their universal accessibility needs.

“After identifying the most important accessibility needs the homebuyer has, we alter their chosen floor plan to work for them and/or their family members, then install all these items during the course of construction,” Powell said. 

Some of these custom items are no-step showers to accommodate wheelchair access, hand-held shower-wands, modified cabinets and countertops, widened doorways, rearranged wall placement and changed door-swings.

“After we price-out the options and our customer accepts, we create the specific architectural changes needed and these are shared with our superintendents and our trade-partners to ensure we are all on the same page. Our purpose is to enhance people’s lives and we take that literally.”

Questions to ask your builder

If universal accessibility is important to you, be sure to ask your new-home builder questions such as these, Fischer said:

  • If the home is multi-level, can I add a bathroom and a bedroom to the main level if they’re not already included in the floor plan?
  • How can I make my kitchen more spacious and functional?
  • Are there design methodologies that can be integrated into the plan that will help prevent falls?

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