Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Barbie's Dream House

Blog #9: Barbie’s Dream House

Recently, I was approached by Barbie, a divorced mother of two teenagers.  She wanted a new home with some specific requirements. Her children were grown and out of the house – one was in college and one was working on the east coast.  Her parents are still alive, but they are aging and she was concerned about their future.  She had decided that when one parent passed away, the other would move in with her, so she could care for them.  Additionally, her mother has Parkinson’s disease and may require wheelchair accessibility.

Based on the criteria, we decided to build a small two-bedroom home, about 2000 square feet.  We would include a full set of stairs to an unfinished attic; however, the attic would be designed so it was easily converted to living space – two bedrooms and a bath – if she needed more space or for resale.

The entire first floor was designed with wheelchair accessibility in mind.  All of the doors and hallways were wide. The master bath had a roll-in shower.  The second bedroom had an ADA compliant 3 ft. x 5 ft. shower that came as a package unit, including grab bars, a seat, and a long shower curtain that reached all the way to the floor.  The second bath also had an ADA compliant roll-under lavatory and plenty of space around the toilet for accessibility.  Her parents participated in the bathroom design to ensure that it met all their needs.

Soon after the home was completed, Barbie experienced the Law of Unintended Consequences.  Her son was injured in a job related accident that severely damaged his hip and he returned home to convalesce in a wheelchair.  The home she had designed with her aging parents in mind was now being used by her injured son.  He questioned whether or not the home was truly accessible and found out very quickly that it was.  Soon he was wheeling all over the house.

Barbie’s son has recovered and gone back to work, and Barbie can rest easy knowing that when her parents come to visit (or move in), the home has been “tested” and will meet all of their accessibility needs.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

John and Vivian

Blog #8 – John and Vivian

John was a highly decorated former marine who served in Vietnam.  He was shot multiple times and disabled while drawing enemy fire away from his platoon during an ambush.  If that wasn’t enough, later in life he was diagnosed with cancer resulting from exposure to Agent Orange.  As the cancer attacked his body, he became weaker and need the assistance of a walker to get around.

The one thing that relieved his aches and pains was the whirlpool tub, but John was no longer able to step over the edge and lower himself into a standard tub.  His wife, Vivian, decided that he needed a tub with an entrance door, plus a few other small modifications to the master bathroom, and she called Whiteley & Whiteley.  When I met with John and Vivian, we walked through the bathroom and made a plan to widen doorways and install grab bars.  Then there was the tub.  Vivian wanted a tub with a door that John could walk through but I suggested that we install a tub with a wheelchair accessible door.  John was using a walker now, but it was possible he could end up in a wheelchair.  The tubs with doors are essentially the same, except that the accessible tub has a wider door that extends past the seat in the tub.  This allows a person to transfer (slide) from a wheelchair to the tub seat.  The door is then closed and the tub filled.  Vivian agreed to the upgrade even though accessibility added a few thousand dollars to the cost; nothing was too good for John.

The bathroom was modified and the tub was installed.  On the big day, we all stood there as John stepped into the tub and sat down.  The immediate goal was to place grab bars on the walls in locations convenient to John.  However, we learned very quickly that John couldn’t pull himself up.  He was too weak and couldn’t stand to get out of the tub!  Thousands of dollars were spent on something that John apparently couldn’t use.  We all stood there disappointed.  Then, John, still seated in the tub, opened the door, swung his legs out and stood up.  The tub was perfect!  The fact that we had purchased the tub with the wider, accessible door made it possible for John to use the seat for entrance and exit.

This was another example of the law of unintended consequences.  We had purchased the accessible tub for a possible future condition, but found that it was necessary for our immediate situation.  With experience comes wisdom and I tucked this experience away in my memory bank.

John passed away last Christmas and, to the best of my knowledge, Vivian still will not use “John’s tub”. She misses him, but she can rest at night knowing that she did everything she could to make his last months as comfortable as possible, including a daily soak in the whirlpool tub.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Second Floor Accessibility

Blog #7 – Second Floor Accessibility

I’m old enough to remember a TV show from the 60’s called The Farmer’s Daughter.  The show was about a wealthy widower with children who hired a strong-willed nanny.  In the story, the widower’s elderly mother lived with them, as well.  What I remember most about the show was the motorized chair that the mother used to climb the stairs.  I thought it was amazing technology but clearly something only the wealthy could afford.

Times have changed, the technology has improved and systems designed to make the second floor of a home accessible have become more affordable.  If you have an existing two-story home and find yourself in need of assistance to reach the second floor, several companies now offer seats that climb a track attached to the stair wall.  The technology has developed to the point where track systems are even available for stairs with a landing midway and a switchback. These systems are able to turn on a fairly tight radius, so you can change direction 180 degrees as you climb the stairs. 

The most significant issue with these track systems is having sufficient room at the top and bottom of the stairs to transfer on and off the seat without interfering with the normal traffic pattern.  Sometimes a home is designed with a doorway at the bottom of the stairs and the end of the track will protrude into the doorway.  This can create a trip hazard or banged shins.  Similar situations are true for the top of the stairs.  When selecting a track system, make sure you do some research and find the system that will work best within the parameters of your home.  If you are designing a new home, make sure you have a slightly wider stairway and sufficient clear space for transfer at the top and bottom of the stairs.

Another technology for gaining accessibility to the second floor is a residential elevator (FYI- residential elevator is the generic term, but there is also a company named Residential Elevators).  Residential elevators are limited to 15 square feet of floor space (3’ x 5’).  Anything above 15 square feet is considered a commercial elevator and the price jumps dramatically.  Most residential elevator companies offer a number of style options and finishes, so your elevator will match your d├ęcor.

Elevators require some infrastructure for proper installation.  The most challenging is an 8-12” deep well in the foundation (or floor) under the elevator shaft to allow the elevator to stop flush with the floor.  You will also need some room at the top of the elevator shaft, which will be in the attic.  Make sure you have sufficient clearance.  The rails will require some reinforced framing and the actuating system (either hydraulic or electric) will require electrical power.  You will also need to install a telephone line.

In new construction, the infrastructure is easily incorporated into the design.  If you are building a new home and don’t need an elevator today, you may want to consider stacking two closets, which could later be converted into an elevator shaft.  You would need to recess the foundation, build a false floor in the closet, and pre-wire for the future elevator.  Although these items will add some construction cost, it is much less expensive to pre-plan for the elevator than to retrofit.

If you are working with an existing home, you may be lucky enough to have just the right location for an elevator, but if you are like most people, your home design will not be conducive to installing an elevator within the living space.  Another option is to find a location on the outside of your home, perhaps one with stacked first and second story windows.  By constructing the shaft outside, you can treat the installation like new construction.

The Farmer’s Daughter may not be available on DVD, but, thankfully, the motorized chair is still available in several formats.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Flooring for special needs.

Blog # 6 – Flooring

This is going to be a relatively short blog post, because there is only so much you can say about flooring as it relates to accessibility.  It does, however, have a surprise ending!

Carpet is clearly the least functional flooring for both accessibility and the elderly.  Wheelchairs can bog down in the pile and many senior citizens either shuffle or don’t lift their feet high enough and stumble on carpeted floors.  If you must have carpet, use styles with a very short or tight pile, like Berber wool or commercial carpet.

Tile is probably the next worst choice, especially if the grout lines are ¼” wide or greater.  The grout lines make the wheelchair operator feel like they are on a bumpy road, feeling the change at every tile.  However, the hard surface is significantly better than carpet.

Wood floors come in many systems and styles, from laminate flooring to engineered wood to genuine wood floors.  The various styles of wood flooring have different surface finishes.  Some have a finish that looks like hand-hewn wood and others have chamfered edges to create the appearance of individual boards.  Like tile, the wheelchair operator will feel each bump rolling across this type of floor, so the type and style of wood floor selected is critical.

The last type of flooring is vinyl flooring.  For those who think of vinyl flooring is boring or ugly, I will tell you that the industry has matured and it’s not your grandmother’s vinyl.  Vinyl flooring may be purchased in large sheets or individual pieces.  I recently selected for a client a vinyl floor that had a wood look.  It came in “plank” lengths and actually looked like wood when installed.  When friends and neighbors saw the floor, they asked for information on where to purchase it, because it was so beautiful, and yet functional, that they wanted for their homes.

Of course, you can go with no flooring and simply stain (or paint) the concrete.

Now here is the surprise:  When I was researching flooring options, I was told by a flooring expert that some manufacturers will void their warranty if the flooring is installed in a location with constant wheelchair use.  If you are installing a floor in an accessible home, you MUST check the manufacturer’s warranty to ensure that the product is designed for and warranted for constant wheelchair use.  Otherwise, you could get an expensive surprise when the flooring wears out prematurely.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Blog #5 – Thresholds

Attention to every detail is key when building an accessible home. A few years ago, I participated in the construction of an accessible home for a family with two young men in wheelchairs.  I was not involved in the design, because I came to the project late, but I was actively involved in the actual construction.  Although my intention was to give back to the community, I actually received more (in the form of knowledge) than I gave.  One of the small but critical aspects of accessible design is the threshold at exterior doors.

Thresholds in all commercial applications are required by law to be not more than ½” high and all commercial doors are designed to meet this standard; however, residential doors have no similar requirement.  A large supply company had been approached to participate in the project and offered to supply windows and doors below cost.  I ordered the double doors for the front entrance and installed them early on so that we could secure the house.  Shortly after installation, one of the young men came to the home and found it nearly impossible to enter through the front door, because the threshold was too high – it was a standard height threshold and was high enough to flip the wheelchair.  Clearly this needed to be corrected.

I did some research and found that adaptor kits were available.  The kit consisted of an ADA compliant threshold (1/2” high) and a U-shaped piece that fit on the bottom of the door and would adjust to close the gap created by lowering the threshold.  This is a simple and easily installed modification to existing exterior doors; however, there was another issue.  These were DOUBLE doors, which have an astragal – the piece that slides into the threshold and keeps the stationary door stationary.  Unfortunately, there was no adaptor for the astragal and when the threshold was lowered, the astragal was too short.  The simplest solution was to remove the double doors and replace the existing door jamb with a unit that included an accessible threshold.  The double doors were reinstalled and the new threshold works fine.

I contacted the company that was supplying the remaining exterior doors and requested that they be delivered with ADA compliant thresholds, which look exactly like standard units, but with a lower profile.  Installation was uneventful and the wheelchairs rolled smoothly over the thresholds.

I learned two things from this experience: a) you must specify ADA compliant thresholds when ordering exterior doors for an accessible home, because, even if the door company knows they are available, it may not be intuitive to include them, and b) if you are remodeling or otherwise working with standard thresholds, adaptor kits are available, except for double doors.



Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Blog #4: John and Barbara’s Ramps

John and Barbara are a couple in their mid-90’s.  They live in a beautiful home with spectacular views; in fact, they are the only people I know that have a written list of prospective buyers to contact if they ever decide to sell their home.  The problem is that the home was built in the early 1980s and it has a sunken living room, which was the style back then.  Everywhere you go in the house, you need to go up or down two steps. 

As John and Barbara have grown older, maneuvering around the house has become increasingly difficult and Barbara has fallen a few times.  It was time to sell and move to a more accessible residence and they began looking for a new home.  They hated the idea of giving up their spectacular view, but even more distressing was the idea of packing up a lifetime of furniture and memories and downsizing to a new home.  They finally realized that the next time they moved, it should be to assisted living; however, they were still quite active and not ready to take that step.

John came to Whiteley & Whiteley and asked if there was anything we could do to make their home more accessible.  Diane and David Whiteley surveyed the residence and recommended ramps in two areas where travel was most frequent and handrails in a few other places, where ramps were impractical.  John was concerned that the ramps would make the home look “institutional” but agreed to the project with two conditions: a) the ramps had to look like they had always been there and b) they had to look like furniture.

Diane and David began designing the ramps, incorporating some of the design elements used in other parts of the home.  They decided to use maple to create the furniture affect and had the ramps built by a third-generation craftsman.  The ramp between the living room and kitchen was designed at an angle, because the living room furniture was already placed at angles, helping the ramp to blend in.  The ramps were stained using two wood tones and given a satin polyurethane finish.  Matching wood handrails were installed every other place steps were located.

The ramps were installed a few years ago and John and Barbara still live comfortably in their beautiful home.  Barbara has not fallen since the ramps were installed and they no longer think about moving.  The cost of the ramps (hand-crafted, maple ramps are expensive) was more than offset by the savings in not moving and not paying the monthly fee for assisted living.  And, the view from their home is . . . priceless.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Natasha's Bathroom (Con't):

Blog #3 – Natasha’s Bathroom (Con’t.): 

Last week, we described how Whiteley & Whiteley redesigned a Jack and Jill bathroom to increase useable floor space for wheelchair accessibility.  This week we will review the amenities within the bathroom – vanity, toilet, etc.  The job went smoothly, but we did have some challenges along the way.

Whiteley & Whiteley has designed several homes and remodels to accommodate wheelchairs, but most of them were designed for aging parents or adult children.  We had, in the past, carefully measured for optimum vanity height and found that we always ended up at the ADA standard ( 34”), so we stopped measuring.  This time, when Natasha rolled up to the vanity, we had a problem; Natasha is 7-years old and significantly smaller than our previous clients, so the standard ADA vanity was four inches too high.  The solution was to cut down and rebuild the vanity to accommodate Natasha.  Lesson learned, always measure.  Natasha has some difficulty raising her arms, so we placed the faucet on the side of the lavatory, making it easier to reach.  Her grip strength is also an issue, so we provided a “touch” faucet – touch it anywhere and the water flows.  Natasha and her sister spent about an hour washing their hands over and over the first day.

The existing toilet was “comfort height,” so we didn’t need to replace it, but Natasha’s parents wanted it fitted with a bidet.  The bidet had two issues: it had to be the right size, because she would fall through the standard bidet, and it required electricity to operate.  We were able to do some Internet research and find a bidet designed for children.  We needed to relocate some light switches and lighting fixtures when we reconfigured the floor plan, so we asked the electrician to add a receptacle next to the toilet.  This is much easier to do when the walls are open and before the drywall sub-contractors come in.  Pre-planning is everything.

On the topic of pre-planning, if you are opening up the walls and/or moving electrical fixtures, keep in mind that light switches and receptacles should be placed lower and also toward the front of the vanity.  You may notice that most bathroom receptacles are located on or near the back wall.  You will need to instruct the electrician to locate the electrical fixtures where they can be reached or he will place them in the “usual” locations.

We needed to add grab bars around the toilet but when we opened the space, we eliminated the walls that might be used for grab bars.  Now what?  The grab bar industry has become very creative and we were able to find grab bars that store against the wall when not in use and swing down when needed.  I describe them as working like a railroad crossing gate.  We installed one on each side of the toilet.  You can buy these grab bars with a built-in toilet paper holder, so we installed one with toilet paper and one without.

When installing grab bars, keep in mind that they will be supporting a person’s full body weight.  If possible, the best method is to install blocking in the framing so that you are screwing the grab bar directly into the wood framing and spreading the load over a larger area.  If this is not possible, a few different styles of toggle bolts are available to fasten the bar and spread the weight load across a larger area.  These are available at any large hardware store.

Natasha’s parents didn’t want to remove the existing tub, because they plan to build a new fully accessible home in the near future and didn’t want to invest the money in a shower system.  If you are building a new home, a roll-in shower is easy, but how do you retrofit a roll-in shower in an existing bathroom?  It’s surprisingly easy, as well.  Several companies make pre-fab shower systems that fit in the 60” space designed to enclose a standard size tub.  You simply remove the existing tub and tile surround and take the space back to the studs.  You may need to move the drain pipe. If the floor is concrete, this will require saw-cutting the foundation, which is not as difficult or dangerous as it sounds.  A professional plumber can coordinate this for you.  The pre-fab shower stalls typically come in 5 sections – a floor pan and four wall segments.  Once the floor pan is installed, the other pieces snap into place and you have a roll-in shower.  The front lip of the shower typically has a soft rubber strip designed to yield when the wheelchair rolls over it.  The rubber strip prevents water from draining onto the bathroom floor.

The final touch in this bathroom was the adjacent closet.  Remember, the closet door was always inside the bathroom and we just relocated and enlarged it.  We brought Natasha into the bathroom for this last step and measured her reach for the clothes rod.  (We learned to always measure from the vanity!)  Once we knew how high to make the lowest rod, we built out the closet.

As a result of this remodel, Natasha can get herself ready for school in the morning.  She can wash her face, brush her teeth, comb her hair and dress herself.  Her parents need to get up 15 minutes earlier every morning, because Natasha takes more time to do it herself, but her independence makes it all worthwhile.