Tips for Designing an ADA Accessible House


When building a custom home, it's important to look forward to your needs as you age in place. This guide is designed to provide an overview of how to design your custom home to allow you to age in place so that if/when your mobility becomes impaired, you can still enjoy your dream home without sacrifice or significant costs.

Key Takeaways:

  • Pre-install structural blocking for bathroom grab bars
  • Pre-Frame doorways to 36"
  • Check floorplan for wheelchair turning radius
  • Ensure sufficient width and run space for future stair-to-ramp conversion
  • Pre-frame an elevator shaft (install elevator when needed)
  • Maximize low storage spaces
  • Minimize the use of carpeting
  • Specify the proper hardware and mounting heights

Disability can change how one functions daily. Unfortunately, around 26% of Americans are living with a disability, which means that about a quarter of Americans find it challenging to live their lives ‘normally.’ That’s why there’s a civil rights law, the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA, that prohibits any discrimination against people with disabilities. This means that they should be treated equally and be taken into consideration, especially when it comes to designing a public or private space.

Tips when designing a house for ADA accessibility:

You can adapt an existing house for accessibility, but when designing a new home plan to age in place, it’s vital that you make it convenient for everyday use and easy to upgrade for accessibility. You don't know if and when you might become mobility impaired so it's best to be prepared because embarking on extensive and messy renovations when you are in the middle of a health crisis will not be very pleasant. This means that any type of service or support you might need should be accessible and usable independently.

Here are some home planning tips when designing a house for ADA accessibility:

Staircases & Elevators:
Staircase and stairway accidents are the second leading cause of unintentional injuries! In fact, there are over a million annual injuries in the US related to stairs. So, it’s safe to say that stairs are a hazard for many, especially those that have disabilities or with limited movement.
Building a two-story home shouldn't be out of the question since honestly, multi-story homes just look better in our opinion! Plus many lots just aren't big enough for a large sprawling ranch home. So in this case you may want to plan for an elevator. The best part about this approach is that you can simply design a space for it and frame it out but leave it empty until the time comes to need it so it's minimally costly in the short term but very convenient in the long term.
Many people opt to only build a single-story ranch home to try to eliminate stairs but even if your home has no second floor, it’s often the case that you have at least a few steps that lead from your site grade or garage slab level to the doorway. If this is the case, then it’s best to consider exchanging these steps with ramps. The ADA is a great guide for designing ramps which must be at a maximum grade of 1:12 and maintain 36" in width and go no more than 30 linear feet without leveling out. You don't have to build a ramp on day 1 but it would be prudent to make sure that you have the width and run to be able to do so in the future. (Contact us to modify any of our home plans or design a custom plan with ADA accessible ramps, or elevators).
Floorplan Layout - Turning Radius & Doorways:
All accessible spaces on your floorplan should have room for a wheelchair turning space. The ADA defines this in two ways:
  • Circular turning space - 60" diameter

  • T-Shaped Turning Space - A 60" square with 36" arms

The key design element that you should incorporate into your house plans to be ADA-compliant is the need to widen the doorways. Typically a house might have many 28-34" wide interior doorways but ideally for people in a wheelchair to comfortably enter or exit, all doorways should be 36" wide or larger. Completely reconstructing the doorways after-the-fact can be very expensive since in many cases there simple isn't room to do so. You can instruct your builder to frame out 36" doorways (and headers for load bearing walls) and then frame the smaller 28-34" doorway inside that. That way, when the time comes to widen the doorways you can quickly and easily install them without having to do any structural work.
On the hardware side, consider replacing the hinges with wide throws or swing clear hinges and specify the easier to use lever door handles.
In addition to stairs, a traditional bathroom can be hazardous and inconvenient for people with disabilities. For one, tiles will become dangerous when they’re wet and soapy. Additionally, countertops and tubs are also non-forgiving surfaces for people who are susceptible to falls.
However, people with disabilities can still enjoy using a bathtub. One best way to do so is to install step-in tubs. Step-in tubs eliminate the barrier that standard tubs have, allowing users to easily step into the tub without straddling. Without the need to step, you are eliminating the risk of slip and fall, so you have a safer and more relaxing experience. Also, don’t forget to make the bathroom flooring slip-resistant.
Showers can also be designed for accessibility. There are manufactured zero-threshold showers that can be installed and curbless custom showers that can be installed, but both will need to be planned for during construction since the base is inset into the subfloor or slab.
Accessible bathrooms should also be equipped with grab bars in the shower and around the toilet. Since grab bars must be installed with structural blocking behind the walls, we encourage our customers to have your builder install the blocking during the framing stage and then wait to install the bars until they are needed. This way you won't have to tear open all of the walls when it comes time to install them.
Carpet is a flooring option that isn't very wheelchair or walker friendly. Plush carpets that have thick padding may feel like moving through the sand for someone who’s using a traditional and manual wheelchair. Conversely, laminate, vinyl, and tile are flooring options that work well with people who are in a wheelchair. Thus, these types of flooring should be used in laundry rooms, kitchens, and bathrooms, as these rooms are the ones that are often visited.
Still, if you insist on carpets as part of your house plans, make sure to consider the style and thickness of the rug, as well as how it’s set up. As mentioned, plush carpets aren’t advisable as they’re too thick, making maneuvering with a wheelchair difficult, but you can opt for cut pile, commercial, and Berber types with minimal padding.
When transitioning between materials, make sure to specify that your builder install ADA compliant transition strips.
Storage Spaces:
As a rule of thumb, more than 50% of cabinetry should be base cabinetry, rather than wall cabinetry so that you will be able to reach your storage easily.
Consult with an expert for an ADA-compliant home plan:
The design tips mentioned above are just a few additions to make a home ADA-compliant. If you’re struggling for more ideas, always consult an expert with a reputable track record. In addition to helping you come up with an ADA-compliant house plan, they may even offer to install or renovate the house for you, as well as teach you about the new features you have.
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