Accessible Housing: In Search of the Dream

Cartoon reprinted from Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, by John Callahan

Cartoon reprinted from Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, by John Callahan

The cornerstone of the American dream is owning a home, but for wheelchair users–who often can’t even get in the front door–searching for the dream can become a nightmare. Whether you rent or buy, the current stock of detached, single-family homes has little to offer in accessibility.

The Americans with Disabilities Act has nothing to say about single-family housing, nor do any building regulations. The perennial construction standard remains two or more steps at the front entrance and small bathrooms with narrow doors.

Recent advocacy has focused on “visitability,” which involves one level entrance, wider doors, and a usable bathroom on the main floor. Austin, Texas, and Atlanta have each enacted visitability ordinances that apply to some new homes. The term “universal design,” on the other hand, more generally addresses ease of use by everyone–disabled, young, old, whomever.

Visitability may be different from “livability,” but according to Eleanor Smith of Concrete Change in Atlanta, “visitability goes a long way toward creating livability. Many people who use a chair can make it in a house if they can just get in and get through the bathroom door.”

The Brick Wall
Accessible housing advocates have continually been blocked by the quintessential brick wall–the National Association of Homebuilders–which found in a study of their members that unnecessary regulations are believed to add as much as 10 percent to the cost of a house. “Builders loathe codes,” says universal design consultant Susan Mack. “They will fight you to the death.”

Which appears to be their plan. A recent NAHB publication states their intention to “take the necessary steps to build the most effective fighting political machine of the 21st century.” These people mean business. So if their top priority is to reduce regulation, they’re not about to suddenly warm to the idea of accessibility requirements.

So what are the NAHB’s objections? First, they say, “let the market define this. We’ll build accessible houses if people ask for them.” But people don’t typically know they need access until after a family member acquires a disability or faces changing needs with age. Market demand left to itself will never produce the range of accessible choices needed in housing stock.

For now, wheelchair users who buy a house must pay for extra modifications–money that could have been saved had the home been accessible in the first place [See "Tear Down the Walls," page 32]. These extra costs lock some potential buyers out of the market and restrict their rental options.

Builders fear that requiring access will result in the general public rejecting homes because they look like “handicapped” houses. But there is a wide array of attractive products available, and plenty of accessible showcase homes have been built that look anything but institutional. It turns out that everybody likes a larger bathroom, not to mention freedom from having to carry a stroller or a heavy sofa up steps. A universal design home is, in fact, eminently attractive and marketable.

Builders Fear Costs
A bedrock fear of builders is that accessibility adds costs. But it costs only $4 more to buy a 36-inch-wide door compared to the standard 30 inch, and there should be no cost difference in building the larger opening. A larger bathroom doesn’t necessarily need a 5-by-5 foot space for turning around and can be easily designed by stealing a few inches from neighboring rooms. But to really understand cost concerns, it’s necessary to look at the builder’s perspective.

Homebuilding is not an easy business. As expensive as a $200,000 house might seem, builders don’t make much profit. The majority of builders only put up 30 or so houses a year, if that. “Production builders are working on a very small profit margin which can easily be eaten up by weather delays or cost increases, and they’re paying huge interest rates for construction loans,” says Mack.

“I believe the opposition is emotional rather than logical,” says Phil Dommer, president of The Philip Stephen Companies, which builds universal design homes in St. Paul, Minn. “It could cost zero dollars and these people would oppose it, because they fear the unknown.”

Ed Steinfeld is a professor of architecture at the University of Buffalo, where he directs the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Universal Design. “The problem,” he says, “is that when an accessible home is proposed, builders automatically think ‘ramp’–an additional element to build, which is not necessarily needed.”

Contractor and universal design advocate Louis Tennenbaum says, “Builders are conservative because they like to use details that they know work.” And the detail that scares them the most is the no-step entrance.

On the Level
Most houses are elevated from the ground with a “crawl space” for moisture and termite protection. For homes with a basement, the main floor elevation allows for windows that let light into the lower level. The two step entrance is widely accepted by building inspectors. If the house doesn’t pass inspection, building will be delayed, which means money tied up. So, how do you get to floor level without steps and still control water and pests?

Dommer sets the floor joists down inside the foundation with hangers, saving up to a foot in floor height. Smith’s favorite solution is to build a front porch which extends out from the house. “It serves as a bridge to the door,” she explains. “Then the yard is graded so the sidewalk comes right up to the porch, sloping down on the sides to keep the water away from the foundation. Habitat for Humanity has put up some 350 visitable houses in Atlanta since 1989 with no-step entrances,” she continues. “Of those, I’d say 300 had a crawl space. The average added cost was about $300 per house.”

But no-step entrances can also mean moving more soil and having to reinforce the soil against erosion, changing construction drawings, and training staff and subcontractors. The no-step detail does cost more money, but there is no question that it can be built to satisfy concerns of water and pests. And if builders would allow it to become a standard detail, the risk of unknown costs and delays would quickly disappear.

The British are convinced. A section of their 1998 building regulations requires no-step entrances–and usable ground floor bathrooms–in all new dwellings begun as of October 25, 1999.

The no-step entrance can also be located in the garage, which is already paved, and protected from water which could infiltrate at the door. The front door is preferred, of course, but when conditions don’t allow, the garage can still provide an accessible–and affordable–entrance.

Not All Bad
There are some encouraging signs. As 76 million baby boomers get older, they want to stay in their homes. The market is starting to ask for access. Builders are sensing the potential.

The NAHB membership now includes a contingent of true universal design boosters, like Dommer, Tennenbaum, and designer Mary Jane Peterson. In April the NAHB Senior Housing Symposium in Phoenix dedicated 25 percent of its schedule to universal design. And according to Dommer, “their official publications have consistently featured articles on universal design in the last 12 months.”

Deborah Adler is a project director at the NAHB Center for Seniors’ Housing Research, a nonpolitical wing of the NAHB. “Two years ago the NAHB Seniors’ Housing Council was very conservative, but now they’re willing to listen,” says Adler. “If we disagree with them, we present our research to show them where they’re wrong.” In other words, universal design advocacy is happening within the NAHB itself.

But building for seniors does not necessarily equate to wheelchair access. Smith saw proof of this when she was invited to visit a new development ostensibly designed for seniors. A wheelchair user since the age of 8, Smith found two steps at the entrances. All she could do was look through the door and comment on the nice, wide hallways. The good news was that only 30 of 150 houses were complete. The builder learned from the experience and started building no-step entrances.

A 1995 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development study found 8.9 million U.S. households had at least one occupant with a physical activity limitation. A third of those had difficulty at the door. Carol Siebert, a universal design consultant, says, “The majority of people I work with are not wheelchair users, but the problem of safely maneuvering at the entrance has turned their home into a prison. Getting out the front door is as daunting as climbing over a wall, and can be life threatening in an emergency.”

Adler described requesting a no-step entrance for her own home. Her builder, apparently unaware of how to do it cost effectively, told her that Maryland building codes would push the cost to $5,000. Most telling, though, was her comment that “I asked out of curiosity, not because I thought we really needed it.” In other words, one of the key universal design advocates for the NAHB sees no need for a no-step entrance in her own home in planning for future aging or disability.

A Simpler Way
When universal design first appeared, builders were inundated with information–thick resource books full of “ADA-compliant” products–but they had little guidance on priorities. Universal design advocates, says Smith, “were going into so much detail that no builders were doing it.”

Concrete Change is making it simpler. “We’re developing a seal of approval for builders who will voluntarily incorporate certain items,” says Smith. Certification will require a few key elements–a no-step entrance, wider doors, and a main floor that includes space for one bedroom, a kitchen and entertainment area without a step. After a history of persistent obstruction, “the homebuilders association is really helping this time around,” she says. She envisions it as a model for a national program.

Tennenbaum, noting that activist pressure from Smith has influenced builders, says, “Builders hate controversy, but now Eleanor has come up with something they can do and get credit for [the seal of approval]. It’s a win-win.”

Legislation Needed
All in all, the NAHB deserves points for improvement, but they have yet to give up formal resistance. At the time of this writing, they are fighting a provision being developed in the International Code Council to require no-step entrances. They have submitted proposal RB33-01 which seeks to allow a 7.75-inch step at all doors, saying it is necessary “to restore a proven method for preventing water entry at landings of residential doors.”

Meanwhile they continue to insist that access can be achieved without regulation. Ron Burton is their vice president for Construction, Codes & Standards. “We believe,” he says, “that this is an area where voluntary compliance can do the job.” It’s hard to have faith in a comment like this while the NAHB promotes a measure like RB33-01. It appears that legislation is the only way to achieve real choice in the housing market. Not code, because, as Smith says, “code development happens behind closed doors. Laws require public discussion.” Once laws are enacted, they are then implemented through code.

Yes, laws and codes involve a long, complex process–another plank of the NAHB campaigns against them. But as our population ages yet remains active, as increasing numbers of people with disabilities gain education and jobs, more builders will need to provide a wide, level entrance into the American dream of home ownership.

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