The accessible home
If you’re thinking of building a timber home, chances are you’re thinking about forever. The frequent result of years of planning, researching and dreaming, timber homes are hardly ever built for the short term. In fact, they’re typically built for the current homeowners as well as generations to come.
So, how can you make sure this “forever” home addresses your wants and needs now and down the road? According to author and architect Deborah Pierce, the answer is accessibility.
“When most people think of accessibility, they think about a house that looks like a nursing home, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Pierce. “An accessible house is really just one that’s easy to take care of and live in. It’s low-maintenance and has low-operating costs. Sure, if a person is getting older or has a disability, then cleaning a house or getting around is
going to be difficult. But wouldn’t we all benefit from a house that’s easy to clean or easy to maneuver no matter our stage in life? That’s the principle behind accessibility.”
Pierce goes on to explain that accessible homes are really just universally designed, meaning they’re designed to be used easily by all people, regardless of ability. “I think it’s helpful to re-think accessibility as being user-friendly. Building this type of home from the start just makes good sense,” she adds.
But will building an accessible home in anticipation of your needs down the road mean you’ll have to live in a home that doesn’t feel comfortable right now? Absolutely not, says Pierce. “When you look at it in a medicinal environment, I can see why people would shy away from the idea. But if
you look at this design method feature by feature, I think it’s easier to see the benefits,” she says. “For example, if you ask people if they’d like a pass-through between the garage and the kitchen so they won’t have to lug groceries through the house, they think that’s a good idea. Anytime you can simplify the activities of everyday living, we’re really streamlining our lifestyles and taking away a lot of our stress. When you look at it as easy living, people get on board.”
Fortunately, if you’re reading this, you’re already on the right track since timber homes are naturally accessible. Because the weight of a timber home is carried on posts, you’re given maximum flexibility for how you design the interior spaces since interior walls are
usually non-load bearing. This gives you the opportunity to open up the hallways, entries and main living spaces — all important design factors in an accessible home, says Pierce.
“I designed and built a timber home years ago and raised my children there, so I know firsthand how accessible these structures can be,” Pierce explains. “There are no interior partitions, so you have the benefit of wide maneuverability. Sturdy, exposed timber ceiling joists mean natural blocking for overhead lifts. Lights are wallmounted, not recessed into the ceiling, so it’s easy to change bulbs. All of these things make for a more livable home.”
So, what other elements should every accessible home include? Whether you’re starting from scratch or renovating an existing home, planning a major overhaul or making changes incremen-
tally, Pierce suggests focusing on four main areas: entryways, kitchens, bathrooms and circulation.
In an accessible home, you want your house to feel welcoming and comfortable from the start, which means incorporating wider doorways, safe stairways and zero-step entrances. Also think about installing grab bars, railings and safety handles. (For a person that doesn’t have good upper body strength, you might need to put them in multiple places around your house.) Fortunately, Pierce says you can incorporate grab bars in a stylish way, through functional chair rail or elaborate handrails. “Any place where a person might be distracted or trying to get from one place to another, you really need to provide them with something to grasp,” she says.
Many people give up their houses as they get older because their kitchens are just too hard to navigate. “Think about how much you’d pay eating out if you couldn’t work in your kitchen” says Pierce. “Having a kitchen that works well for you is an economic factor as well as a convenience.” Her suggestion: Design the space so that everything is within reach and the countertops are customized (height, depth) to how they’ll be used. Should frequently used appliances be placed on pullout shelves or drawers? And what types of hardware will be easier to grasp as you get older? In general, pulls are a smarter choice than smaller knobs.
In accessible homes, bathrooms are especially important, says Pierce. “When
people spend a lot of time in the bathroom, having that space be safe and pleasant makes it easier to live well.”
To create an accessible space, really look at how you use your bathroom. If a person has a disability or is a bit older, it might take longer to bathe and more space to move around, so an accessible bathroom should be bigger than a standard bathroom. Tubs and showers (Pierce recommends curbless models) should be oversized, too. Also think about visibility. “Amenities like non-glare light fixtures, anti-fogging systems and proper ventilation make it so that accidents are less likely to happen,” says Pierce.
Perhaps the most important consideration when building an accessible home is how you’ll get around the interior spaces, says Pierce. “If you can’t get around or get in and out of a room easily, it’s not going to be usable. Whether that means in a wheelchair or just walking safely, it’s something you really need to think about when planning your space.”
To achieve this, make sure any paths or travel are clear of obstructions, wide enough, well-lit and free of glares. “Many people think of passageways as leftover space in a home, but they are actually really important,” Pierce explains. While you don’t need to incorporate all of these ideas in your design, you should think about things like ramps or sloped interior walkways. Will you eventually need lifts on your stairs? Accommodating stairways, generally have wider treads with shallow vertical risers.
In the end, accessibility is really about living comfortably, says Pierce. “It’s the people who live with a disability on a daily basis who are raising the bar for the entire design and construction industry. They are the ones that are demanding homes that work better and are safer, easier to maintain and less stress-inducing,” she says. “In doing so, they’re bringing ideas into the home that have universal appeal, making it easier to build our homes right the first time instead of having to make major changes in the future.”
This 1,200-square-foot barn-turnedhome features non-slip floors, mainlevel living and an elevator to create a home that’s entirely accessible.
Lowered countertops and pull-out features make the kitchen an easy space to navigate, regardless of age or ability. The home also features an open floor plan with wide hallways for easy access.
To tour this renovated barnturned-accessible home, log on to timberhomeliving.com. All of the home’s service areas are included on the first floor, including the garage, laundry room, office and art studio.
This home tour, as well as many others, can be found in The Accessible Home by Deborah Pierce. ($27.95,TheTaunton Press)