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Accessible Small Houses: What is accessible enough?

There are many levels of accessibility in home design, with variations even within the current federal laws that mandate accessibility for public buildings and multi-family housing. Individual homeowners are not usually required by law to make their new small ADU or stand-alone single-family house comply with any accessibility guidelines so what standards you set for your use are your choice.

Accessible Small Houses

The traditional carriage house above a garage is difficult to make accessible unless an elevator or a lift is included, but it could be made safer with the stair inside out of the snow and ice.

This is a guest post in a series by Mike Kephart of Kephart Living, LLC, a design and consulting firm dedicated to the support and resurgence of the Sidekick Home or Accessory Dwelling Unit with offices in Denver, CO. View the first post in the series, “Accessible Small Houses,” here.

I have studied the various regulations and guidelines currently in existence and have selected the Guidelines included within the 1991 amendments to the Fair Housing Act (FHA) for my use. For example, with some exceptions in large developments, bathrooms just need to be wider than the usual 5’0” in order to accommodate a 2’10”or wider door. The bathroom also needs to be longer than the 8’0” normal length, in order to allow a person in a wheelchair to enter and close the door behind them. What these standards don’t do is require the 5’0” circle free of obstructions and the multitude of grab bars that the ADA regulations do. The FHA guidelines also allow for future installation of necessary safety features by preparing subsurfaces in walls for these additions, which encourages more attractive design than the utilitarian ADA/commercial styled baths.

Accessible Small Houses

Unattractive ADA bathroom.

Accessible Small Houses

Walk-in shower replaces a tub.

The zero step entry may be the single most important feature in an accessible home design. This detail requires advance planning of floor-to-grade elevations to provide for drainage away from the home while eliminating the step that builders have relied on for years to provide this protection. Cover the exterior entry or porch and slope the porch slab away from the house. It isn’t necessary to utilize this detail everywhere around the home, but providing access to patios as well as at the entry is optimum.

Accessible Small Houses

This person leaves their wheelchair outside because of the steps into this small house.

Picture: The builder almost got this one right, but unfortunately when it comes to barriers to entry an inch is as much a problem as a full step

Examples of other important details to include:
A- wider doors
B- Lever door hardware
C- wider hallways
D- usable kitchens
E- an accessible route through the home
F- sleeping space on the first floor
(Actually that last one is mine. Our practice is to use an elevator to a second floor, and or a straight run stair wide enough to accommodate a future lift.)

The term, “usable kitchen,” is vague. What is meant for the most part is to avoid making something impossible to do. Impossible would be a sink or stove placed at the center of a small U-shaped kitchen so the only way to approach the fixture or appliance is head-on. The solution is to either leave a knee space below the countertop or, to provide a parallel approach for each fixture or appliance and to allow a person to adjust their position by providing ample room. The following photo is of a kitchen that does just that. Notice how the sink is not in the corner either so a person in a wheelchair can reach the center of the sink. The microwave location above the countertop may be unusable to that same person however.

Accessible Small Houses

Kitchen in IKEA showroom.

Accessible Small Houses

Table does double duty as countertop in this kitchen. With some modification seating for four or more can be provided saving room in the home by eliminating the usual dining room.

The term Accessible route means just that, access into and through every room. It is possible to make a bed do double duty as a desk, much like the double duty dining table/countertop. The Wallbed company has a few choices, however the mechanics of converting it back and forth is difficult and requires a bit of strength. Most people want a bedroom to be a bedroom only, with the bed in place full time. That means the room needs ample circulation space around the bed as well as through the room. This restriction does not allow for tiny rooms in an accessible home which usually means fewer rooms as compared to homes that are less accessible.

Accessible Small Houses

A foldable Futon can serve as a part-time bed, but is not ideal for nightly use and daily naps.

Look for the third in this accessibility for small homes series to follow. In that last post I will make side-by-side comparisons of home plans that are accessible against those that are not. I will also illustrate the concepts of universal design and how designers may use them to their advantage as well as for the benefit of people who live in small houses.

Contact information:
Mike Kephart
Kephart Living and Sidekick Homes

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2 Responses

  1. Smart and practical tips. Better than beautiful designs that doesn’t serve the needs of the tenants. Look forward to your next post.

  2. Small Houses « Leod [Loud] About says:

    [...] I am so into these small houses for their efficiency.  I think i would save so much energy and time.  Many of them have every detail so well thought out.  There are several blogs out there on these houses, along with YouTube videos which I will post.  I particularly liked this log because it dealt with the issue of disability accomadation and small houses.… [...]

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