Universal Design

Universal Design: Property Considerations

A few months ago I started writing about the idea of Universal Design here and here. Three weeks ago we closed on a property that we will be gutting and rebuilding to create a fully accessible, universally designed two-unit home – providing housing for my husband, myself and my two late teens that the four of us with our three power wheelchairs can navigate fully and independently.

Over the next few months, it is my intention to write about the process – the highs and the lows – to try to bring more attention to the need for Universally Designed housing, but before we can get to awesome kitchen details we need to start with the property itself!

The first step of creating homes and neighbourhoods that are Universally Designed starts far before the architectural drawings. The very first step has to be the neighbourhood – access to amenities such as public transportation, shops, parks, doctor’s offices and emergency services – even basic amenities such as city-ploughed sidewalks – play an enormous part in creating a truly Universally Designed space. That’s not to say that those who are capable of driving independently can’t build a fully accessible home out in the countryside, but when it comes to a more universal design philosophy, we need to go a step further in our thinking and consider access across the entire disability spectrum – including those who may be able to navigate life independently but aren’t able to drive for whatever reason.

The second issue is the shape and size of the lot. In an ideal world you need enough space to go ‘out’ instead of ‘up’. That’s because ‘up’ requires (most often) elevators, and the more you can build directly at grade or with short, gentle ramps, the better, as a reduction of dependence on technology increases independence, and improves quality of life.

Which gets us to the third issue – grading. The ideal lot is either one with a flat grade, or one with a gentle incline up at the front of the property. Why up? Because a gentle incline up allows you to position the house in such a way that you can also create an affordable, accessible apartment below your main unit, which will go a long way to helping to make your main unit more affordable.

But to do that will require the fourth issue – zoning. You can’t simply build multiple units on just any property. Every lot in a municipality has been given a zoning. In our community, the zoning designations include four general Residential zonings (1, 2, 3 and 4), two multi-family zonings (RM1 and RM2), as well as commercial and industrial. Changing the zoning on a property is difficult, time consuming, costly, and there are no guarantees to the process. Even something as simple as a minor parking variance can lead to pre-build angst with neighbourhood associations or your city’s building department, so the more you can specify what you need before you zero in on a property, the better your process will go.

And finally we come up to the fifth issue which I’ve already alluded to – cost. To actually build homes that are Universally designed, the cost of these homes needs to be carefully considered. Many folks with disabilities do work, but it isn’t a guarantee. Many are also Seniors or others who live off of fixed incomes like pensions, ODSP (the Ontario Disability Support Program) or other limited sources of monthly income. Since these funding resources are often woefully inadequate to the task of properly paying the bills, creating truly Universally Designed units requires thinking about how to make these homes affordable for the long run. Whether its the addition of a universally designed Second Suite in the basement (to provide two accessible units effectively for the price of one) or the placement of Universally Designed units on the main floors of condo buildings or low rise apartments, the property solutions we come up with have to accommodate both wheelchairs and budgets to be truly Universal.

Currently the focus in most of North America on accessibility in housing is directed at remodel projects. These hack jobs carry with them all manner of ‘choices’ between fixing the entrance and making the bathroom more accessible without ever addressing the complicated navigation of the floor plan, the narrowness of the hallway or the impossibility of getting a wheelchair into the kitchen. In three years of looking, I have yet to find a resale home that could be easily remodelled to meet the needs of my family in the community I live in – try as I might. The ‘simplest’ remodelling jobs rocket quickly into six digits and beyond from there, making them untenable for all but the richest of individuals.

Furthermore, many people newly facing disabilities, or attempting to plan for the reality that aging often brings disabilities are inexperienced enough at accessibility to know what to look for, what to ask for and what will matter to them down the road. A remodel project often requires that you give the contractor your exact specifications, or trust that they know what you will need. But a contractor or interior designer is not an Occupational Therapist or someone with lived experience. They don’t understand movement and disability in ways that will help them problem solve the space or think about little ‘gotchas’ like the position of the plug near the vanity or the need for an enclosure around the vanity pipe to prevent scalding of your legs when you approach the sink from a seated position.

All of this simply underlines the importance and need for new build homes to build a certain percentage of all new home construction using Universal Design principles. “If we build it they will come” – especially if we build the infrastructure and connections that people need, and keep in mind options to ensure affordability both in the short and long-term.

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