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Multilevel homes: options for accessibility.

Dwelling units often become "home" when some elements are specially tailored to residents' needs. For many people, one of the most basic requirements is an accessible dwelling unit that has an accessible route connecting entrances with elements and spaces inside the building. Typically, this requirement is more easily accommodated in apartments, condominiums, etc., than in single-family homes.

Prior to the 1988 passage of the Fair Housing Amendments Act, accessible housing was limited to a small percentage of new multifamily-dwelling units that met design standards established by state building codes. The new Fair Housing Act and its associated design requirements affected all new multifamily housing, public or private, that has at least four dwelling units. Single-family housing, however, was not covered by amendments to the fair-housing law. Consequently, providing wheelchair access to single-family housing challenges the construction industry and people with mobility impairments to find innovative ways to access multiple floor-levels.

Multiple floor-levels are more common in single-family homes than in apartments or condominiums. The multistory configuration is usually driven by factors such as high land-costs, energy conservation, and affordable construction.

Homeowners, fortunately, have different ways of accessing multiple floor-levels, including exterior ramp systems, wheelchair/platform lifts, interior stair lifts, and residential elevators. Depending on the house site or the configuration of rooms and spaces, each option can be evaluated for its overall function, cost-effectiveness, and aesthetic impact. When these options are explored early in the design process, they can be more easily and inexpensively incorporated into the dwelling-unit design before it is built.

The need for modification of an existing home, however, often arises in response to an unexpected disabling condition or when other suitable housing alternatives are not available or affordable. An example of one such home modification involved the addition of a platform lift to a recently completed residence in Reston, Va. The design was by Kim A. Beasley, managing principal of Paradigm Design Group.

The challenge of providing access into the house was multifold. The home's owner had recently been diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis. The original plan had several steps to the front entry. To compound the problem, a grading error resulted in an entry condition with approximately ten steps. Meanwhile, the owner's mobility deteriorated, resulting in his use of a wheelchair.

The proposed design solution responds to several issues. First, the owner wanted to maintain his ability to access his home through the front door as opposed to a rear entry. An enclosed platform lift seemed to be the appropriate solution. The existing elevated wood deck and covered entry had to be modified to accommodate it and the enclosure. Materials used to enclose the lift were selected to match the exterior of the house. The solution preserves the entry steps and integrates well with the adjacent elevated deck.

Secondly, the community in which the owner resides became a factor in designing the lift. Since Reston has strict architectural guidelines governing the exteriors of all homes, some concern was initially expressed by the local community. It is often difficult to integrate ramps and wheelchair lifts into the exterior of a small house. Through thoughtful design and selection of materials, the finished product tastefully preserves the character of the house as well as that of the planned residential development. More importantly, the solution satisfies the needs of the homeowner.

The third--and most important--design requirement focused on the owner's need to maintain his independence and minimize reliance on family and friends. The platform lift is connected to the driveway and garage by an accessible walkway. The lift allows independent operation at all times; it has an overhead light for nighttime operation. All of these features combine to create a successful architectural solution that enables the owner to maintain his lifestyle and continue his occupation, daily routine, and leisure activities with independence and dignity.

While many building codes and design standards pose certain restrictions on the use of wheelchair lifts in public buildings and facilities, these devices often become space-saving, cost-effective means of accessing elevated or depressed floor levels in single-family residences. The key-operated mechanism required by code is usually not an issue, since the owner of the single-family residence maintains and controls its use.

Other options for connecting multipe levels in homes include devices that adapt to the interior stairs. Space restrictions in retrofit projects usually limit the application of lifts to stairway types with built-in seats. Wheelchair platform lifts are usually too large for interior residential stair applications. Most stairs that meet the code-required 36" minimum width will accommodate various stairway-lift devices. Some products even adapt to stairs that have intermediate landings or change direction. A resting place for the unit, at the bottom and top of the run, is necessary for safe and convenient storage when not in use. Wheelchair users must transfer to the seat. In addition, a second wheelchair for use on the second level is also needed.

A more expensive solution is to use a residential elevator. Unless the house design was originally intended to accommodate the future installation of an elevator, this option may not be practical. PVA architects had proposed the idea of designing a strategically located closet space, later to be converted for elevator use in a proposed residence in 1988 ("Accessible Housing," May 1989). The idea was also incorporated in a research home built by the National Association of Home Builders later that year.

A residential elevator requires an enclosed shaft, as does a commercial elevator, albeit with a smaller mechanical room and overrun space at the top of the unit. Careful placement of the elevator is necessary so as not to interfere with critical structural elements or roofing systems.

As generations of Americans age and experience physical changes that affect mobility, there will be an increasing need for innovative designs that help overcome architectural barriers. Multilevel, single-family homes can be adapted for use by individuals with mobility impairments. A little foresight during the planning and design stages can significantly ease future home-modification efforts, thereby allowing people to maintain independent and dignified lifestyles.
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Title Annotation:Home Sweet Home
Author:Beasley, Kim A.
Publication:PN - Paraplegia News
Date:Sep 1, 1994
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