The city council in Austin, Texas, has voted to adopt accessibility rules regarding first-floor bathroom door widths for all new homes permitted in the city after January 2008. The new “visitability” rule marks the first time any municipality has mandated accessibility features for private homes.

But the council voted to scale back a much broader proposal that would have included requirements for no-step entry doors, minimum 32-inch door widths throughout the first floor, lever door handles, and easy-to-reach thermostats, electric panels, and wall outlets. After hearing from disabled citizens and from builders, the city council voted to adopt just two requirements from the original proposal: a 30-inch minimum door width in one downstairs bathroom and blocking between wall studs in that bath to allow grab bars to be installed if desired.

Advocates for the disabled were disappointed by the council’s rejection of more sweeping rules, and some left the meeting shaking their heads before the final vote was taken, according to a report in the Austin Statesman.

But Austin builders expressed relief at having escaped a new mandate they said would have added costs to every house while providing only marginal benefit to the city’s disabled population. Harry Savio, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, had argued to the council that actual costs for building redesign and implementation of the new measures would have far exceeded the $200- to $300-per-house cost estimated by outgoing councilwoman Betty Dunkerley, who had pushed for the “visitability” measure.

Austin builders now plan turn their attention to working with a new city task force, which will consider voluntary, incentive-based program to encourage adoption of the visitability measures originally proposed. (For more on universal design trends, click here.)

“You can’t have too many task forces in the city of Austin,” said Savio. (Austin task forces have successfully designed not just the city’s trend-setting green building program, but also an energy code for city housing in recent years.) The Austin HBA has floated a compromise proposal to require home builders to offer a visitability package to customers as an option for any custom home. “My challenge is to convince the task force, which I presume will include members of the city council and representatives of the handicapped community in Austin, that our voluntary concept is a good approach,” Savio said.

Austin has no shortage of builders who are qualified to serve on the committee. “About one- third of the new homes built within the Austin city limits fall into the city’s existing visitability requirements already,” Savio noted, either because those builders participate in the city’s “SMART” housing program for affordable, green, and energy-efficient housing, or because the homes are being built within the Mueller redevelopment at the city’s former airport, a piece of prime real estate that is now a showcase “new urbanism” mixed-use project.

Ted Cushman is a contributing editor to BUILDER magazine.


Learn more about markets featured in this article: Austin, TX.