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 décor.

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.

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