In 2015, the U.S. celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, more than 56 million Americans have some sort of disability. That's more than 18% of the population, which makes those with disabilities the largest minority group in our country. Today, this home builder is taking a moment to reflect on the state of accessibility within home design and construction.
The original scope and intent of the ADA was quite broad, including preventing discrimination in employment practices, making public transportation accessible to everyone, and creating accessibility standards for commercial buildings, public walkways, parking lots, etc. These, and other highly visible examples, are the aspects of the ADA we're all familiar with, yet you might not realize that the law has very little reach into the home.
As a home builder the ADA has almost no impact on my business, since personal residences are outside the scope of the law. In most cases, a man can build his house as he sees fit, with no thought of accessibility whatsoever. That is his prerogative with his private property. Since there's no true governing body or standard for accessibility in residential construction, companies can technically build homes without putting forth any effort to make them more accessible, unless a particular client asks for specific modifications to a home's design.
This is not to say, however, that the building industry can afford to take a pass on making accommodations for those "less able" than others. Over the years, I've chosen to go beyond thinking of the required laws when building homes to thinking what would be most beneficial. Sometimes I do build for families who request certain features, such as a ramp instead of stairs, hand rails in the shower, etc. But more often than not, these days, I'm the one first suggesting we consider accessibility in a home's design.
When I meet with new clients in my office, I'll first ask if they have any special requests for accommodations. Most don't. But even if they don't, I'll press them: "Is this the home you want to retire and grow old in?" "Is there any chance your mother-in-law will move in with you as she ages?" "How about when Grandpa comes for a visit?" Pushing gently in this direction usually elicits a response such as "Oh, that's a good point. We hadn't thought about that. My mom has started to use a walker since she turned 80…"
The goal in this line of questioning is not to find ways to outfit a home with unnecessary and expensive modifications; it's to consider the bigger picture and prevent any obstacles to the family enjoying and staying in their new custom home as long as they wish. No matter how much they love their two-story home with the beautiful master bedroom on the top floor now, it could become a burden instead of a blessing if there's any chance one of them will need a wheelchair in a few years. …and try asking anyone who's needed a knee replacement just what they think of walking up and down the stairs. A situation where the homeowner is unable to access their own home is something builders want to avoid at almost all costs.
I can't tell you how many times I've met with aging couples in my office who tell me they want to build a new home with a focus on main-level living, because their current home, which they thought they would old and gray in, failed to anticipate mobility issues. It's easy to forget that a home designed for a couple in their late 50's who intend to live there for their final days should be designed for an 80 year-old couple, for someday, that is exactly what they will be.
My suggestion to builders is to not only anticipate future accessibility needs, but also simply build in features that have minimal cost. For example, all of the homes I build now have a "no-step garage" standard. If the simplest level of accessibility is allowing easy wheelchair access, at the very least we should ask ourselves, “Is building a three foot wide door with no threshold detrimental to the able-bodied?” If the answer is “No” and it isn't cost prohibitive, why wouldn't we look upon this as low-hanging fruit, and design accordingly?
Of course, not everything can simply be baked into the cost of a home, so you might consider looking at a tiered approach for some options. While a home we're designing today might not warrant a $30,000 elevator, we could add a $2,000 elevator shaft, and frame it for a closet or pantry today. This offers a good use of money now, and flexibility for down the road.
I recently rebuilt a home for a family who lost their home in a forest fire. Today, the wife uses a wheelchair, but didn't when they first bought the original house 30 years ago. In the design process for her new home, we made several improvements to the layout to accommodate her needs, including: an oversized garage bay for her wheelchair van, a driveway that goes all the way up to the front door with no steps to get inside, an oversized bathroom with the ability to accommodate a wheelchair right in the shower, and more. All of these things will allow her to enjoy the home for decades to come, yet none of them will "hurt" the home's resale value should she choose to move away or sell the home. This home was built so that anyone, even those without special accessibility needs would want to live there.
It could be argued that builders could save themselves a lot of headache if we designed homes for folks based on their precise needs at the exact moment we build for them. However, our lives are far from static, and what meets our needs today might not tomorrow. Consider this: any one of us, no matter how able-bodied today, could find ourselves with a disability tomorrow. It takes just one accident, or a single health crisis, and we could join that ever-expanding minority group of the disabled.
I've taken a quote from Maya Angelou as my new credo when designing and building homes for aging clients: we are "Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between.” From the outset of the design process, I tell folks that if I’m doing my job properly, I should be able to visit them in their new home one year later and ask “What would you do differently if we built this home today?” Ideally, they would have a very short answer.
Our friends at the ADA have this to say. ”If we all can take a step back and realize what our future living arrangements might be like as seniors, we can be best prepared and focused on making our lives as accessible as possible for fun and fruitful golden years – especially in our homes,” said Rachael Stafford, Project Director of The Rocky Mountain ADA Center.
Andy Stauffer is president of Stauffer & Sons Construction based in Colorado Springs.