Entryways, bathrooms key in designing accessible homes

Adapting homes to be accessible requires removing barriers, both for now and in the future. Stairs and steps, and tight doorways and corners can be difficult to maneuver, whether it’s a child or an adult who is carried, who needs assistance to walk or who uses a wheelchair.

While homebuyers who are approaching retirement or who envision caring for an elderly parent are buying or building homes for future needs, some metro Atlanta homeowners have urgent accessibility needs.

“It’s very stressful for the families,” said Holly Ranney, co-founder of Sunshine on a Ranney Day, a Roswell-based organization that creates makeovers for children with long-term illnesses.

With medical bills and no expertise in remodeling, some families don’t know where to begin or how to find a contractor familiar with accessibility features or guidelines set by the Americans With Disabilities Act. These tips could help you get started, though.

Beginning with the bathroom

The bathroom is the No. 1 area to be remodeled when Sunshine on a Ranney Day, which plans to do 15 makeovers with its partners in 2014, enters homes. For starters, often the doorway isn’t large enough for a wheelchair or walker to access.

“Most of the time, we have to gut the entire bathroom,” Ranney said.

Often, a custom-built vanity is needed so that a wheelchair can maneuver around and roll underneath to reach the sink and drawers. Custom-built shelves also place towels and toiletries within reach.

“Everything is set a little bit lower on purpose,” said Jennifer Crosby, owner of Crosby Design Group, an Atlanta company that has partnered with Sunshine on a Ranney Day.

Bathtubs often are torn out to make room for wider zero-entry showers with slip-resistant tile. Sink pipes are covered so that the knees don’t get burned. Faucets with automatic sensors, instead of knobs, also are more user-friendly, Crosby said. Hand-held shower heads, by companies such as Kohler and Moen, also allow people to bathe themselves, if possible.

Grab bars are strategically placed, depending on the individual’s mobility. For example, if the person needs to move to a shower seat, grab bars would be placed near the entryway and the seat. If a parent or caregiver will be giving the person the shower, multiple grab bars can assist them while holding up another person. Crosby added that it’s important to use blocking (often adding an extra two-by-four between the studs) so that it can support the weight of a grown man who leans on a grab bar.

Using designer tile, from companies such as Interceramic, and oil-rubbed bronze or brushed nickel for grab bars can create a stylish bathroom instead of having it look too institutional, Ranney said.

Making it accessible from the start

Clearance issues are among the first things to consider, Crosby said. How do you enter the home? Can you get in from the garage? If there are stairs, is there room to add a ramp or a lift? Having safe passage in the house doesn’t just stop once you’re inside, but can require everything from widening the doorways to adding levers instead of doorknobs to rearranging the furniture.

Crosby added that homeowners with children also should consider how their needs could change as they age. For example, as a child becomes a teen, he or she possibly could microwave a meal. If so, the microwave would need to be placed lower to reach from a wheelchair.

Depending on if the person is crawling, using a wheelchair or walking with a walker or cane, the flooring could be too slippery or too plush, creating a trip hazard. Luxury vinyl plank (LVP) flooring can withstand the use of a wheelchair, which might get stuck in high-pile carpet or cause tiles to crack, Crosby said.

The tiles were cracked in the kitchen and dining room of a split-level home in College Park that Sunshine on a Ranney Day renovated. Also, the living room was two steps down, so the parents, who were in their 60s and 70s, had to pick up their son and carry him or his wheelchair down the stairs. The remodel featured luxury vinyl plank flooring and added a ramp.

Some additions include playrooms and therapy spaces. One company, Rehab Mart, has provided therapy swings and other items for Sunshine on a Ranney Day to install. In one boy’s playroom, Sunshine co-founder Pete Ranney built a padded ball pit. A Dutch door can contain kids within the view of parents and caregivers. Crosby added that playrooms and therapy spaces also consider how many electrical outlets are needed — and where they can be safely placed — as well as lighting and fans.

Transforming a traditional two-story

Beth Goldsmith’s home in Peachtree Corners is about 35 years old, but her need for an accessible residence arose about four years ago, when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The four-bedroom, four-bath home had a bedroom on the main floor, which became a suite with a bathroom.

She checked books out of the library and learned about types of door handles and shower options, but was disappointed to find a lack of handicapped-accessible floor plans to follow. She sketched out a plan, and her husband downloaded a program onto his iPad to tweak the design. They pushed the wall out about 14 feet for the remodel, which took from April to October 2013.

The Goldsmiths went to CSI Kitchen & Bath Studio in Norcross and pieced together a bathroom vanity with double sinks, cabinets and a spot for a stool at the countertop. For the curbless shower, they followed an installation guide published online by North Carolina State University’s Center for Universal Design. Key advice included making the shower big enough for a wheelchair to turn around and how to lower the drain pan into the shower floor. The shower has a fold-down bench and multiple shower heads.

“We spent a lot of time discussing where all the controls would be so I could reach them,” she said. “Then there are grab bars in the shower also that I use not only to get up, but a lot of time, I’ll just hold onto them when I try to do something like turn the water on, turn the water off … things that sound simple to an able-bodied person.”

Textured porcelain tile from Floor & Decor keeps Goldsmith from slipping. While Goldsmith was unsure she would use a bathtub, they found a Jacuzzi tub with a door and a seat on Craigslist (saving about $3,000, she estimates). Craigslist also was the source for leaded glass windows and furniture including an electric chair from La-Z-Boy that reclines and lifts.

“I didn’t have any real examples of this,” she said of her finished suite. “I would have loved to have seen something.”