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.