Universal Design

“Can’t You Just Add an Elevator?” (Understanding the Challenges of Retrofitting the Average Home)

As I write this we have an offer in on a property to purchase. It currently has a home on it, but one that is in tear down condition, as we intend to demolish the existing structure and build a new, fully custom home in its place.

To be frank, this is not a cheap decision. In fact, this is going to be one of the most expensive decisions we have ever made in our lives! It’s also going to be one of the most time-consuming decisions we have ever made, as it is likely going to take a year or longer to get from here to a fully ready home.

Given all of that, it’s pretty reasonable that our family and close friends have asked us questions like “can’t you just put an elevator in?” or “couldn’t you just purchase a bungalow?” so I thought I would take some time to explain why it’s not that simple…

“Can’t you just put an elevator in?”

Unfortunately you can’t simply drop an elevator ‘just anywhere’ in a house. They require structural supports and more importantly, space that is free of walls (and preferably duct work) from one floor to the next. That space has to not only be big enough to accommodate the wheelchair, but also big enough to accommodate the wheelchair user as they get on and off the lift.

Elevators themselves are not cheap – they run about $40,000 + installation which can cost another $35,000 – $50,000, depending on what work needs done, so the cost can add up quickly.

In our case, there is simply no placement of an elevator that we could do that would end up working structurally in our present home. So moving is the only option.

“Couldn’t you just purchase a bungalow?”

This is going to come as a surprise to some, but there are remarkably few TRUE bungalows in the City of Barrie. We have LOTS of back splits and side splits, but all of those have STAIRS to navigate. We also have lots of bungalows where you enter BETWEEN the basement and the main floor, necessitating – you guessed it – more stairs!

Even if we could find a true bungalow (and I admit there are some out there) these homes have typically been built between 900 – 1300 sq. ft., and to do that have utilized space saving measures such as narrow hallways and doorways as well as galley kitchens and narrow bathrooms. The problem with this is that by the time you widen the hallways, doorways, bathroom and kitchen, you barely have any space left for the rooms themselves – which need to be wider than average to be able to accommodate a wheelchair along the side of the bed or pulled up next to the couch.

Finally, I will admit that a few of the new designs by builders for bungalows use a more open plan style that allows for wider hallways, it is important to note that even these homes may not be Universally Designed. In almost all cases the doorways to the bathrooms will be too narrow to pass with a wheelchair or walker, you will be unable to roll directly into the shower (because there will be a lip) which will make it impossible to have home care assistance with bathing should you require that, the proper plywood blocking will be missing from behind the shower wall making it difficult to safely install grab rails, and the kitchen will still be mostly unusable. All of which means you will still be forced to do significant renovations, and that’s if you only have ONE person with a disability to accommodate.

More than one.

Now, I happen to know that we are not the only family with more than one person with a disability. I know a number of folks who have two, three, four or more folks with disabilities all living under the same roof. Particularly in situations where people are dealing with genetic or mitochondrial conditions, or for those who are fostering special needs kids, this is not an uncommon situation. So I know that I’m not alone in this situation, but you’d think I was, given the options for housing.

For us to be able to find a home that we could even renovate that would allow us to accommodate all of the disability requirements we have in our family is simply impossible. From what I have been able to gather, it would take MORE time and cost MORE money to take apart load bearing walls, renovate and add an addition in most cases than to build from scratch.

Why does all this matter to the average person?

The bottom line is that a large number of disabilities present with sudden or very quick onset. That means that if your home is not already built to accommodate your needs – an accessible bathroom, bedroom and entrance space at the very least – than you will be left scrambling to achieve these things in the midst of dealing with the health crisis that is also taking place.

Think for example, of the day grandma has a stroke. She lives at home independently with grandpa and has enough use of her faculties after rehab that she would like to continue to do so. However, she now uses a walker and wheelchair (on days when she’s tired) and when you go to take her home you realize that her walker doesn’t fit through the bathroom door. Now what?

Or consider the moment your young adult child is in an accident and becomes paralyzed. It happens in an instant, but when you go to look at their basement apartment you realize they can’t possibly get down the stairs, nor is there space to install an elevator. So you look at your own home, thinking you can bring them back there and realize that the only place there is a shower or bathtub is on the second level of the house and there is no space to install an elevator. So where do they go?

Or there’s our situation. Where one day we could walk and then – for an as-yet-undiagnosed reason – the next day we basically couldn’t. And not only did it happen once, to one of us, but it went on to happen again and again until there were three of us collapsed in bed not sure how to make it from the bed to the bathroom, how to get through the door when we got there, what to do about the stairs to the main floor or how we were supposed to prepare ourselves any food in our completely inaccessible kitchen.

So if you can’t just install an elevator, and you can’t just move to a bungalow, and accidents and disabilities are most likely to strike with little warning, then what’s the solution?

That’s simple: build every new house based on principles of Universal Design.

  • Use full 34″ or 36″ doors in all bathrooms and bedrooms.
  • Put grab bars in showers as standard.
  • Build roll-in showers wherever possible.
  • Locate closets one above the other somewhere in the house to accommodate the future installation of an elevator.
  • Include counters of varying heights to accommodate seated food prep and ensure kitchen space is wide enough for a wheelchair to pass through.
  • Consider ease of accessibility when making grading decisions to the front door. Ideally create a curbless entry, but if that’s not possible for some reason aim for one to two steps which can easily be accommodated by a ramp.

There are many other ‘nice to haves’ with Universal Design that we will be talking about over the coming weeks and months, but if we were to include these six points in all of our new home and new apartment construction we would significantly lower the challenges faced by families and individuals who have to deal with new disabilities. And given how many other things you need to worry about at a time like this – wheelchair purchasing, vehicle accommodations, insurance hassles, hospitalizations, doctor’s appointments, therapy regimes, new medications or medical treatments, etc. – having a home to come home to would be an incredible place to start!

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