Accessibility laws and codes have certainly helped increase access to many different building types. Generally, new public buildings must have a minimum level of accessibility in order to meet Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines and applicable building codes. Multifamily housing projects (apartments and condominiums) are required to conform to the accessible design standards of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) guidelines as well as building codes.
However, one type of structure remains largely unaffected by mandatory accessibility requirements: single-family housing.
Precise definitions vary, but for the purposes of this article, single-family housing is a type of residential structure designed to include one, two, or three dwelling units. Multifamily housing (covered by FHA accessibility guidelines) conversely is four or more residential units grouped together. Single-family housing generally includes detached houses, duplexes/triplexes, townhouses, and row houses. Units typically have separate access to the outside and do not share plumbing and heating equipment.
Until fairly recently, the consensus was that regulations are not required for single-family housing. Owners could renovate according to their personal needs. If a homeowner or family member uses a wheelchair, they could build ramps, install grab bars, widen doors, and reconfigure walls for clearance as necessary. If another homeowner doesn’t have a mobility impairment, then why would the home need to be wheelchair accessible?
But what about the child who happens to be a wheelchair user, and gets invited to a birthday party at a friend’s house but can’t get in the front door? How about the baby boomer who had an injury and may need to use a wheelchair for a few weeks? Or the young veteran coming home with a spinal-cord injury (SCI) who can no longer visit his old buddies in their houses?
Enter the idea of “visitability.” The concept is much simpler than universal design (UD), accessibility, or barrier-free design. Visitability seeks to provide single-family homes, not otherwise regulated for access, with the bare minimum level of accessibility so a wheelchair user can comfortably “visit” the home. In fact, one of the goals of advocates is to keep visitability to just a few requirements in the hope it will become more widespread. The main target of visitability is speculative builder housing where it can positively affect the most people, though the concept can be applied to many situations.
While the idea of visitability has its roots in Europe, it was originated in the United States by Eleanor Smith (Atlanta), a disability advocate and one of the founders of an organization called Concrete Change. According to her Web site, in 1986 Smith was driving around Atlanta, passed a new housing development, and took particular notice of the steps at every entrance. Around the same time, she was working with the disability rights group ADAPT [www.adapt.org], which was advocating a lift on every new bus.
It was then she got the idea: “A lift on every new bus? Yes. And why not a zero-step entrance on every new house?”
She soon realized that “widespread change in housing construction depended on continuously focusing on the few construction barriers that create by far the most harm: lack of a zero-step entrance, narrow interior doors, and lack of access to a bathroom.”
According to Smith, she and her fellow advocates initially used the term “Basic Home Access.” Then, in 1990, a young wheelchair-using Japanese architect visited Concrete Change headquarters. He said, “In Europe, they use the term visitability.”
The simplest visitability mandates do not require the accessible entrance to be the front door. If the site makes an accessible main entrance impractical, it could be on the side or back of the house, or even through the garage.
Today, visitability is a fast-growing trend. The idea of providing basic access to new homes for a minimal cost has a natural appeal. The minimum requirements to achieve visitability are:
– At least one zero-step entrance
– Wider interior doors and hallways on the main floor
– Half bath/powder room on the main floor
Various visitability codes and laws proposed have expanded the definition, but these are the minimum “non-negotiable” requirements. As the definition grows in scope, the chance of its being adopted diminishes.
A zero-step entrance consists of:
– A 1:12 maximum path to the entry door
– A three-foot-wide minimum entry door
– A door threshold no higher than ½ inch
While a 1:12 slope (1 foot rise for every 12 feet in length or 8.33%) is the maximum allowed for the pathway, a more gradual slope is highly desirable if possible. A slope of 1:20 (5%) to 1:16 (6.25%) is much more manageable by most people with mobility impairments. If the slope is steeper than 1:20 and the rise is higher than 6 inches, most jurisdictions will require adding the elements of a ramp for safety: level landings, handrails, and edge protection.
An important feature at a zero-step entrance is a covered entranceway. Though not listed in the minimum requirements for visitability, a roof over a zero-step entrance should always be provided in order to keep rain and snow out of the home. Besides, if you have ever been outside your front door fumbling for your house key in the rain, you know this is a good design feature to have on all houses.
Visitability has made great strides. Habitat for Humanity, for example, has agreed to incorporate visitable homes in their program and built more than 800 to date. It is now required for all houses built by the Atlanta Habitat for Humanity. And according to the University of Buffalo, whether it’s mandating visitability or providing tax incentives for voluntary accessibility, there are currently 17 laws and programs at the state level and 39 at the local level throughout the U.S. with many state and local proposals currently being considered. The biggest gains in the construction of new visitable homes have been the result of mandatory laws such as in Pima County, Ariz., which had approximately 15,000 visitable new homes at last count.
The idea of requiring developers of new communities to provide visitable homes is not without its opponents. In the case of Pima County, the visitability ordinance was challenged in a lawsuit brought by the local chapter of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). However, the Court ruled in favor of the county and refused to overturn the ordinance.
Much of the resistance has been a perception that it would add a huge cost to developers. However, the key to keeping costs down is planning from the outset. Retrofitting accessibility can be expensive, but if incorporating the basic elements of visitability takes place early in the planning process, the cost can save between $200 and $400 per home.
In contrast to statutes (laws), building codes are developed by independent committees, then adopted by state or local jurisdictions. This is why they are more appropriately called “model building codes.” They are developed and published as “models” that municipalities are then free to adopt, often with modifications.
The most widely used model building code in the U.S. is the International Building Code (IBC). For accessibility criteria, IBC uses an independently developed technical guideline called ANSI A117.1 Standard for Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities. ANSI A117.1 is also frequently adopted as a stand-alone document.
A new edition of the ANSI A117.1 guideline is scheduled for publication by the end of this year and for the first time will include specific criteria for visitability. Since this document is so widely used in the U.S. this an important step for accessibility advocates. Although ANSI A117.1 does not prescribe “scoping” requirements (quantities), it will provide state and local jurisdictions who decide to implement visitability requirements with detailed technical guidelines.
Better for All
According to the current ANSI A117.1 draft, in order to be a visitable unit, a residence must not only have an accessible entrance, wider doors, and accessible powder room at the entrance level but also provide a public room (such as a living room) on that level. Also, if the kitchen is on that level, it must meet certain basic accessible maneuvering clearances at appliances, cabinets, etc. This is to help ensure that if the homeowner is entertaining, for example, a visitor with a mobility impairment can participate along with the other guests.
NAHB states that between 700,000 and 1.8 million single-family residences are built each year. Until recently, the only accessible homes have been custom built or modified on an as-needed basis for individual homeowners. It has been only two decades since people have begun considering requiring basic access that allows neighbor to visit neighbor, regardless of physical ability.
But visitability is gaining momentum. Examples of visitable communities are all around the country. This means easier access for people who use wheelchairs, individuals who are elderly, and even those with strollers, groceries, or heavy packages.
It is simple common sense. Providing the most basic level of accessibility in our nation’s housing is easily achievable, affordable, and could improve the quality of life for millions of people.
Contact: MarkL@pva.org / 800-424-8200.
ANSI A117.1 Standard for Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities
Visit www.A117.org or call PVA Architecture. PVA architects serve on the committee that develops the ANSI A117.1.
Concrete Change /www.concretechange.org
University of Buffalo’s Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access / www.ap.buffalo.edu/idea