Home Sweet Home: Accessible Home Modifications

Author: Will Zver, B. Arch (Tech), LRI Engineering Inc.

A large proportion of the population is increasing in age, and it is projected that 25% of the total population will be aged 65 and over by 2036.1 It is no secret that there is a strong correlation between increased age and the prevalence of disability. Statistics Canada also reports that 22% of Canadians, or 6.2 million people, have at least one disability, and 38% of these are seniors aged 65 and over.2 As the population ages, the notion of “aging in place” or “living in place” is growing in popularity. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) defines aging in place as “the ability to live in the same home or community safely, independently, and comfortably, as you age”.3 The ability to age in place is usually hinged on the accessibility of a person’s home. However, when it comes to the accessibility of a single-family home or detached house, home owners are often left confused as to what to do to enhance access into and throughout their house, as the Building Code has limited requirements for accessibility within private residences.

The Ontario Building Code (OBC) exempts certain types of residential buildings from the application of the barrier-free design requirements within Section 3.8. The exemption applies to houses, defined by the Code as “a detached house, semi detached house or row house containing not more than two dwelling units, triplexes, and boarding or rooming houses with fewer than 8 boarders or roomers.” With the exception of the 15% designated barrier-free suites within a residential building (condo, apartment, dorm, etc.), there are no other provisions within the OBC for accessible housing.

The OBC provides common accessibility requirements that are intended to address the majority of needs within public buildings. It is not intended that the OBC provide prescriptive requirements within dwelling units, as private residences are meant to be modified based on a person’s specific capabilities. Some accessible design elements come at a cost (e.g., elevating devices) or require more space (e.g., accessible showers/ bathroom, wider doors, etc.), which may result in an increase in the initial purchase of a house for elements that are not necessary for every home owner. The barrier-free design requirements for designated suites in residential buildings is intended to provide units that have additional spaces for specific rooms and access to those rooms. The suites are not completely barrier-free but are considered visitable units that may provide flexibility in design so that home owners can adapt their residence to suit their specific needs.

Plan ahead

The first step to take when considering accessible home modifications would be to start early and engage the services of an accessibility consultant. An accessibility consultant can assess the property/house, highlight areas that would provide improvement and establish a list of priorities based on the specific needs of the home owner.

It is important to note that not all disabilities are mobility related; however, for the purposes of this article, considerations are focused on access and maneuverability for mobility devices as they often require more space and money to implement.

Key considerations

The following are some key areas to consider when establishing the priorities of the home owner.

ACCESSIBLE ENTRANCE — A barrier-free path of travel to an accessible entrance is important for providing ease of access/ egress into and out of the house. The first step is to assess the property to see if you can incorporate a barrier-free path of travel by way of a sloped walkway or ramp to the entrance door. If access to the front entrance is not possible, consider the back or side entrances, where feasible. The OBC provides design requirements for ramps in Article However, if implementing a ramp is not possible due to space limitations, it may be necessary to install a lift in order to negotiate the difference of height between the ground level and entrance level.

In addition, a larger entry door, or a door with wide throw hinges, may be necessary to achieve a wider clear width to allow passage of mobility devices. Latch side clearances and level or minimal thresholds are also important for providing unhindered access. The OBC outlines barrier-free door design requirements in Article

INTERIOR CIRCULATION — Clear, level interior circulation to maneuver throughout the house and navigate into and out of rooms is important for the independent living of a home owner.

A quick, easy way to increase space for maneuverability is to keep hallways and the latch side of doors clear of furniture or similar items. If hallway width is limited, it may be necessary to widen doorways into rooms or even remove door panels at the entrance to rooms that do not require high levels of privacy (e.g., office, laundry room, kitchen, etc.).

Wider doors from hallways with limited width allow a person to turn more easily into a room. However, if existing hallways can not accommodate the width of mobility devices, it may be necessary to demolish walls to create a more open concept space.

KITCHEN — Kitchens often pose challenges as the sink, appliances, prep spaces and storage cupboards are typically located too high to reach from a wheelchair. As well, adequate space for side approach and front approach of wheeled mobility devices is often not provided. Home owners may consider relocating everyday items from upper cabinets to lower cabinets and even replacing deep lower cabinets with millwork that has drawers. Drawers allow for easy access to storage and will reduce the need to bend down and reach to the back of a cupboard to grab items.

It is also important to consider replacing conventional stoves with induction cooktops. A person seated in a wheelchair is at a higher risk of coming into contact with hot burners when reaching across the stove to access the controls. Conduction burners can help mitigate this risk, as they do not retain heat once pots and pans are removed. Lastly, lowering the kitchen sink and a portion of the counter beside the sink, as well as providing knee and toe clearance, will allow a home owner the ability to prepare food and wash dishes using a more comfortable front approach. Subsection 7.4.4. of CSA standard B651-18, “Accessible design for the built environment,” provides helpful design criteria for accessible kitchen spaces.

BEDROOM — Often bedrooms are located on the second storey of a house, making it challenging for people that have difficulty navigating up and down steps or for people that use wheeled mobility devices. If feasible, a home owner can consider converting an underused space on the main floor (e.g., dining room, office, etc.) into a bedroom. Locating a bedroom on the main floor will limit the risk associated with travelling up and down stairs or the need for expensive chair lifts.

BATHROOM — Similar to the bedroom, the full bathroom (with shower or bathtub) is typically located on the second storey. A home owner may consider adding additional space to the main floor powder-room to incorporate a shower or a bathtub as well as space for maneuverability around the toilet and sink. Additionally, installing wall reinforcement and grab bars or supports/commode chairs at the toilet and installing a wallmounted sink with knee space will help promote easier use of plumbing facilities.

If no bathroom is available on the main floor or it is not feasible to add additional space for a shower or bathtub, a chair lift may be necessary to provide access to an appropriate washroom on another floor. OBC Articles to and provide design requirements for accessible toilets, sinks, bathtubs and showers, which can be used as design guidelines within a private residence.

CONTROLS — Access to control devices is important for being able to adjust lighting, room temperature and other elements for occupant comfort. Oftentimes, control devices such as light switches and thermostats are located too high above the finished floor level or have been installed too close to the corner of a room, making them difficult to reach from a wheelchair. Relocating these control devices can be expensive as they will require an electrician/contractor. In this case, an alternative could be to install smart devices that will allow a home owner to use voice activation or smartphone apps to activate controls.

Next steps

After establishing a list of priorities, the second step would be to engage the services of a qualified designer that can create a design to satisfy the specific needs of the home owner. The  qualified designer will develop permit/construction drawings that can be used for municipal approval and by a contractor to execute the renovation.

Overall, there are many things to consider when planning to modify a house to make it more accessible. It is important to start planning early and to work with professionals that can help establish goals based on the specific needs of the home owner and the opportunities or restrictions of the existing house.

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