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.