I have a confession to make: I am a floorplan junkie. I like to think it’s in my blood; my dad always wanted to be an architect, and I used to love unrolling the floorplans he’d designed in high school and college and look over the rooms he’d laid out. Throughout elementary and high school, I often doodled floorplans in the margins of my notebooks or on scraps of paper. While I ultimately went a different route career-wise as well, I still spend hours and hours poring over floorplans, just for the sheer fun of it.
My family and I currently live in a beautiful Colonial Revival home built in the early 1940s that’s packed with charm and efficient details. In terms of floorplan and brilliant use of space, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a design I love more. And when we first moved in, it fit our needs perfectly! We had a young family, I hadn’t yet encountered major health challenges, and it was, as we liked to say, “just enough.” Fast forward nearly a decade, though, and some of the features that made this house charming and efficient have become incredibly challenging for me, particularly during bad stretches. For example, there is no bathroom on the main level (and, thanks to efficient use of space, nowhere to put one). There are stairs everywhere: three steps at the front door, one step from kitchen to dining, full flights to the basement and second story, and two steps from our bedroom up to the bathroom and other bedrooms. The laundry room is in the finished basement, two flights up or down from the bedrooms. It can be difficult for me, to say the least! We’ve made some adaptations where we can (stairlift, remodeled kitchen, grab bars), but, ultimately, there’s just nothing that can be done about some of the challenges in this beautiful house of ours. For that (and a few other) reason, we are talking seriously about moving to a new home in the coming years. Whether we end up buying an existing home or building one from scratch, I’ve begun to compile a list of must-have features that our next–accessible— home must have.
Whether you or a family member live with mobility, sensory, or other impairment yourselves or not, it’s worth considering how accessible your house is to potential guests (or to yourselves as you age or encounter health challenges). This is the heart behind the growing idea of universal design: design that is accessible and usable by everyone, regardless of ability or impairment. Even if it’s just a short-term mobility impairment, such as after a knee or foot surgery, it’s good to consider a few things as you weigh the pros and cons of different floorplans.
Although there are some floorplans out there specifically designated as “accessible,” my experience has been that there are far too few (or that they aren’t actually accessible at all). It’s quite likely that you will buy an existing home, or design a home, based on a floorplan that was not initially created with universal design in mind. As long as it takes into account the things that you will need (hallway and doorway widths, turning radius, appropriate use of space, etc), there’s no reason why you can’t opt for a “regular” floorplan.
For our own house ventures, my husband and I are strongly considering the possibility of building our own home using a pre-fab company not too far from us. Pre-fabricated homes have many advantages, including fixed cost to build, energy efficiency, and speed of building. In the volatile construction market we’re currently experiencing, they can often be more affordable than a traditional build. The company we’re most interested in actually gives the option of modifying designs to make them accessible: adequate door and hallways widths, electrical outlets mounted at 25 inches for easy access, lowered light switches, zero entry doorways and showers, etc. They have a wide range of homes, all of which can be customized. I’ve reached out to them several times now with questions, and have always gotten very prompt, favorable responses. They will absolutely be on our shortlist when it comes time to move onto our next home!
A floorplan drawing is shown with living room, dining room, and kitchen spaces at center, master bedroom with large en suite to left, and two bedrooms, bathroom, and utility room to right.
It’s also smart to plan for at least one bedroom and one bathroom on the main level. That way, even if it’s just to accommodate a guest or for yourself as you recover from a surgery or injury, you’re sure to have access to the spaces you need most without needing to tackle stairs. Having lived with our basement laundry room, I also recommend having your washer and dryer on the main level so you aren’t left lugging laundry up and down the stairs. I have a separate post that goes into more detail about things to consider to make your laundry room more accessible in general.
General Design Considerations
If you are designing for yourself or a family member and have varying degrees of severity with your illness, I would recommend designing with your worst flare day in mind. For example, although I only require a wheelchair a few times each year, when I consider floorplans for our next home, I always look at the spaces and ask myself whether I could navigate them in a chair. Are the hallways wide enough? Can I turn around, and get onto/off of furniture? Can I get into the shower or toilet from a wheelchair, or is there space in the kitchen to manage in it? If I can design for my worst possible days, then I can be assured the house will work for me even if my condition worsens in the future.
In addition to having wider doorways and hallways, it pays to think about things like handrails along hallways and stairs, adequate lighting, non-slip flooring, and ease of opening and closing doors. For most people with pain or dexterity issues, a lever-type handle will be easiest and least painful. This type of door can also be opened by someone who has an arm amputation or other disability. If you or a family member/guest will often use a wheelchair, consider adding a handle to the inside of doorways to allow them to be pulled closed after entering.
A gray-haired Caucasian man in a wheelchair reaches backward to pull a handle on the exterior of a bathroom door to close the door after exiting.
If you have chronic fatigue or weakness, think about ways to minimize the risk of falls or increased fatigue. For example, efficient floorplan designs with minimal wasted space or long hallways can reduce energy expenditure. Keeping a bench at an entryway, along a hallway, or building in seating in the kitchen can conserve energy as you move around your house.
If you’ve ever used a mobility device or wheelchair, you’ve probably experienced how difficult it can be just to enter spaces! My own house is a perfect example: no matter which way you enter (front or back door), there are steps. Some houses have a smooth pathway acting as a ramp, but then a 6- or 7-inch step up into the doorway. When you want to make your house fully accessible, it’s important to start right at the beginning, with the entry.
There are many ways to address this, and someday I hope to write a post dedicated specifically to ramps and entryways. For now, suffice it to say that the gold standard is something called, “zero entry.” This means that there is a less-than 1/2 inch difference in height between flooring surfaces, a gradual approach to the doorway (such as by ramp or winding pathway) of no more than 5% grade, and a door width of at least 36 inches. This will ensure that anyone with a mobility impairment of any kind will have access to your home.
It’s also important to consider other disabilities and impairments, such as vision impairment. To make your house more accessible to yourself and guests, consider the lighting throughout the home, including at the entryway. Make sure any ramps or transitions are well-lit. It can be helpful to use contrasting colors to make transitions more easily visible, such as a dark door threshold against a light cement porch or rampway. For your guests, make sure your house number is clearly visible, and ideally in a contrasting color to whatever surface it hangs on. Make sure it can be seen well even at night, with adequate lighting. These are simple things that will make your own life easier, and will make guests feel more welcome.
Large white metal numbers, “42” are seen screwed onto black wood siding.
Once inside, it’s important to have room to navigate safely. In commercial spaces, ADA specifications require hallways to be at least 32 inches wide, and all interior doorways to be 32 inches as well. Aside from the width of the space itself, consider how a person will move around in that space. For example, is there an adequate turning radius for a wheelchair user to change direction (typically a radius of 60 inches is recommended)? Make sure there isn’t furniture cluttering up the space, or that there aren’t scatter rugs or slippery floor surfaces that could increase the chance of a fall.
I’ve written about building in kitchen seating (and hope to someday post about other kitchen design considerations), but here are some general elements to think about as you design your kitchen.
Just as with the entryway, turning radius and open space are crucial in kitchen design, whether you yourself use a wheelchair or might someday host a guest who does. A radius of 60 inches somewhere in the kitchen (ideally in the middle) allows someone to turn around easily without bumping into cupboards or appliances. This means that a kitchen without an island, with a movable island, or with space at the end of an island may be preferable.
If you have weakness or fatigue, it’s wise to consider energy expenditure. Long kitchens, or very large spaces, require more energy expenditure. So do appliances that are widely spaced apart, or pantries or storage that are far from the kitchen. As much as possible, think about how you will use your space and group the things that will be used most often within close proximity to one another. For example, our fridge sits just inside the kitchen, not far from our front door, with a full-length pantry next to it. This means that when I get home from buying groceries (an exhausting endeavor!) I don’t have to travel far before setting things down and putting items away. It also means that all of my ingredients are close at hand when I am baking and cooking. And I have an island nearby where I can stack cooking ingredients as I remove them from the fridge and pantry.
A white French-door refrigerator sits next to a full-length pantry cupboard with doors open, and full of food items. A blue and white gingham tile floor, light gray walls, and the edge of a gray island countertop are seen in the foreground. Photo credit: Livable by Design
One of the aspects that sometimes gets overlooked is the choice of appliances. If bending or reaching down can be challenging, it might be best to consider a bottom freezer design such as my fridge in the photo above, or a wall oven. If you have differing dietary needs and will sometimes be cooking food that is not safe for some members of the family, you may want to opt for a double oven. If you frequently use a wheelchair or prepare food from a seated position, you might consider installing a microwave in the bottom cabinets. Again, think about how you and your guests will most often use the space, and try to design with the worst days in mind.
I could easily write an entire post about bathroom design, and someday I will. In the meantime, though, here are some of the things I recommend considering as you design your bathroom space.
Whether you currently have impaired mobility, might have guests with impairment, or plan to age in the home you are designing, it pays to include at least one bathroom with a zero-entry shower. This means that the shower has no lip or step up, has an open doorway (a sliding door or curtain are fine), and that an individual could roll right into the shower in a wheelchair if needed. Hand-in-hand with access to the shower is safety once you are in the shower. This means including a bench or some type of seating (this can be fold-up, removable, or permanent), grab bars, and shower heads that can be used whether seated or standing. It’s also essential to use flooring that won’t increase the risk of slipping or falling. Think about how you will use the space, and make sure things like soap and shampoo, towels, etc., are within easy reach when you are showering. And remember to account for lighting and make sure the space is well-lit and easy to see.
A white tiled-look shower surround is seen with white shower floor and zero entry from wooden bathroom floor. Brushed nickel grab bars are seen vertically at shower entry, and horizontally along back shower wall. A built-in shelf above this grab bar holds shampoo bottles. A fold-down brown wooden bench is mounted to the right wall, and overhead shower head and handheld head are seen on left wall.
The bathroom should include a 60 inch turning radius, with enough open space to easily approach the toilet whether walking or in a wheelchair. If you or those in your home often use a wheelchair, make sure there is space next to the toilet to transfer from the wheelchair to the commode. It’s also essential to have a grab bar to assist with getting onto and off of the toilet, and to keep toilet paper within easy reach.
The sink should be mounted at a height that can be reached easily whether sitting or standing. To make it accessible in a wheelchair, make sure the space under the sink is open (or that cupboards can be easily opened and kept out of the way, or that the space is covered by a curtain). Lever faucet handles are easiest to use with dexterity impairments, and soap and towels should be within easy reach whether sitting or standing. Make sure lighting is adequate, and that hot and cold handles are easily identified. If there is a mirror, consider hanging it low enough to be usable whether sitting or standing, or install a tiltable mirror.
I discussed bedroom design in more detail in another post, but there are a few general concepts to consider when you are setting up your bedroom, or the bedrooms that others in the house will be using.
In addition to including an adequate turning radius, good lighting, and usable door handles, remember to consider the approach to the bed. If you use a wheelchair, make sure there is enough space next to the bed to park the chair and transfer to the bed. The mattress should be at a height that allows for easy transfers (or, if you have difficulty bending or standing from a seated position, you might consider having the bed slightly higher than normal). It’s a good idea to keep the space under the bed open, so that a portable lift can be used to help get into and out of bed.
A dark green upholstered bed with white linens. The bed sits on silver legs, with open space beneath, and a speckled carpet next to the bed. A white wall-mounted nightstand with white lamp and plant are seen on far side of the bed.
Also think about your typical bedtime routine. You may want to mount outlets to charge phones at a height that can be easily reached from the bed. If you use medical equipment, such as a CPAP machine, make sure you have a nightstand or other surface nearby where that equipment can be stored and plugged in. If you spend long periods of time in bed, make sure the furniture you choose is comfortable and that there is space to keep snacks, medications, and other necessities close at hand. You’ll want to consider having different levels of lighting, such as overhead, bedside lamps, and/or lights on a dimmable switch. If you have pain in your hands or find fine motor movements difficult, consider a touch lamp, smart devices, or voice-activated fixtures.
There are many more things to consider, and the specific features of your home will be very individual to your own needs. But universal design doesn’t have to be clinical or boring–look for creative uses for items, or design features that are subtle and practical. Happy designing, and welcome home!
Featured image shows a beige sided house with red sided porch, pillars, and white railings. A cement ramp winds up to a red front door with no steps or change in levels.