Emotional Intelligence

Planning Ahead for Wheelchair Accessibility

Seattle architect Karen Braitmayer, who has used a wheelchair for 40 years, describes the truly accessible house.
Seattle architect Karen Braitmayer, who has used a wheelchair for 40 years, describes the truly accessible house.


With soaring home prices, many buyers are finding that their first house may be their only house, and they want to plan for the long haul. That is, they want a house where they can still live comfortably when they are pushing 85 and likely to be physically less able.

These buyers may want the to-die-for kitchen in the here-and-now, but they also want amenities that will accommodate their physical needs many years down the line.

What should they look for? Many modifications that accommodate a physical disability can be made as they are needed. The ones to focus on in the here-and-now are the ones that will be easy to incorporate during the planning and construction but prohibitively expensive or impossible to add or change later. For example, a house with 36-inch-wide doorways throughout will be much easier to negotiate in a wheelchair than the standard 30-inch and even 28-inch doorways found in most new houses today. Widening a doorway after the fact is costly, but framing it to a larger opening initially is costless, and the added cost of a bigger door is insignificant.

Strategically placed areas that are large enough for a wheelchair to turn around (a five-foot-diameter circle) and 48-inch-wide hallways will also make navigating in a wheelchair easier. These will be impossible to add later without a major renovation that involves moving walls.

To understand how these amenities will matter down the line, you need the perspective of a person who uses a wheelchair. Seattle architect Karen Braitmayer, who has had a bone disorder since birth and has used a wheelchair for more than 40 years, can describe just what it means to live in a house that's truly accessible.

First, she said, you need to understand the limitations of your vehicle. Don't imagine that you're at the wheel of a sporty little Miata that can turn on a dime. A better analogy is a clunky minivan that can't even turn on a silver dollar.

Your first trial may be trying to get in your house, either from a garage that opens into a laundry room, or the front door. You need more than a 36-inch wide doorway. Once inside, you want to be able to shut the door. If you can't turn around because the area by the door is too small — a five-foot-diameter circle won't fit — you have to reach around behind you, slam the door, back up a bit and then struggle to turn a deadbolt.

Once you're into the main living areas, Braitmayer said, you will find the going easy because in most new houses, this part of the house will be very open with no doorways at all.

But, when you move into the private area of the house, hallways and doors can again be problems. Braitmayer said these will be especially challenging if you've been able to move freely in the living area and then are suddenly confronted with a three-foot-wide hallway. Braitmayer said it's like going from a four-lane highway with wide lanes to a narrow country road with no shoulders.

"It's nerve-racking. You have to slow way down, focus and bring your fine-tuned directional skills to the front of your brain. When the hall width is at least 42 inches, you can be more relaxed; when it's 48 inches, you can effortlessly proceed," Braitmayer said.

A wider hallway is easier for the other members of your household as well because they can easily get around you. Otherwise, you have to back up or the other person must wait until you have cleared the hallway. The 48-inch width also allows two people in wheelchairs to pass each other. This might seem unlikely, but Braitmayer said having two wheelchair users in one household is not so uncommon. In fact, it is the case for her — her daughter also uses a wheelchair.

A 48-inch hallway may sound like a super-highway running through the middle of your house, but with good design, the hall will be short, Braitmayer said.

Your next hurdle will be getting into the rooms off the hall. If the door openings are 36 inches wide, they will be wide enough for you to get in without having to make a sharp, 90-degree turn. Otherwise, again with great concentration, you must get into position so you can get through the doorway. Braitmayer said it's just like trying to make a sharp turn into a parking space between two parked cars when you're driving a minivan. You have to go back and forth in your wheelchair until you can finally go forward. If the doorway is a tight fit — say your chair is 29 inches and the doorway is 30 inches — you may scrape your knuckles, she added.

Braitmayer's preferred solution to the openings-off-the-hallway problem is what she calls the "lobby" or the "cul-de-sac" — the 48-inch wide hallway ends in a larger 7-by-7-foot square space so all the doors open off it. That way, the wheelchair user can turn 360 degrees and aim for any doorway.

Once inside the bedroom, however, you're still not home free. You'll need a five-foot clearance on at least one side of the bed so you can easily transfer to it from your wheelchair. It's better to have this clearance on both sides so you can change the sheets and make the bed, Braitmayer said. It's also easier to do the transfer if the height of the mattress is about the same as your wheelchair, about 18 inches off the floor.

You also need access to your clothes. If you have a walk-in closet, you need the 36-inch doorway and at least a 30-inch clearance down the middle, though a 36-inch one is better, Braitmayer said. Whether the closet has storage on one or both sides, you need space at the far end so you can turn around. Otherwise, you will have to back out, which is not impossible but is definitely awkward.

If you have a shallow-access closet, you will need sliding doors or doors that swing outward. The bi-fold doors found in most new houses can get in the way as you try to reach things, Braitmayer said.

Your next trial will be the bathroom. Once inside, you need space to turn around and shut the door. If you don't have it, you'll have to reach around behind to slam the door shut, just as you did when you came into the house.

When you're finished, you'll have to back up to the door, reach around to open it, pull forward to get it fully opened and then back out. In addition to the bathroom-privacy issue, there is also a functional one — you need enough room to transfer from the chair to the toilet. Braitmayer said the easiest solution here is to put the five-foot-diameter turning area by the door and then locate the toilet opposite the doorway.

In most new houses, the master bathroom is generously sized, so the five-foot turn area is not a big issue. But it is critical for a hall bathroom or a powder room off the main living area, Braitmayer said.

You might think that if you are old and frail when you need to use a wheelchair, you won't be operating it yourself, so these issues won't matter. Not true, Braitmayer said. Whether you are able to move yourself about in a wheelchair or someone is pushing you from behind, the issues of entering and exiting every room in your house will be the same. Click here to see what a truly accessible floor plan could look like. Image credit: Studio Pacifica, Darrell Jones

Design tip: Bathroom modification with flair

If and when you need to modify you bathroom to accommodate a physical disability, you don’t want it to look like a hospital with imposing stainless steel grab bars everywhere. A great alternative in both looks and color are the offerings of Ponte Giulio, an Italian firm (www.pontegiulio.com). It makes grab bars and supporting rails in a variety of shapes and sizes, as well as a variety of shower seats and benches. Everything is available in 11 colors including fire engine red, bright yellow and a deep blue. To create a coordinated look, the firm also offers matching accessories such as towel racks, toilet paper holders, robe hooks and soap holders.

March 2006