Home Innovation Insights

Making a house accessible during initial construction reduces the need for future remodeling or relocation.

Elina Thapa
October 21, 2022

Accessibility and Universal Design

According to the CDC data, 61 million adults in the U.S. live with some kind of disability and about 8 million of them have a mobility disability with serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs. Disability is not limited to one age group, but as people age, their motor skills start depleting and even day-to-day tasks become daunting. This causes many homeowners to eventually opt for either assisted living facilities or make home modifications to accommodate their mobility needs. Assisted living facilities are expensive and require the individual to leave their home and community behind, so opting for these facilities has large monetary and non-monetary costs. Making a house accessible during the home’s initial design and construction reduces the need for remodeling and relocating the homeowners when they face mobility impairment in the future.

The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHAA) is a landmark law that added disability as a federally protected class and requires multifamily housing built after 1991 to be constructed with seven specific design features, and to be adaptable. The seven design features of these adaptable units allow an owner to quickly adapt a unit if someone with a physical disability needs accessible features. For example, an adaptable unit has reinforced walls at the toilets and tub/showers to accommodate the installation of grab bars if needed by the resident, while a fully accessible unit has those grab bars already installed.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued a guide to provide builders and developers with technical guidance on how to comply with the FHAA’s accessibility requirements. The guide covers accessibility construction practices for multifamily buildings. The practices include accessible building entrance on an accessible route, accessible route into and through dwelling unit, usable doors, reinforced walls for grab bars, light switches, electrical outlets and thermostats in accessible locations, usable kitchen and bathrooms, etc. The ICC-700 National Green Building Standard® (NGBS) includes these practices along with a few others to improve the accessibility of both multifamily and single-family homes.

2020 NGBS Chapter 6 recognizes Universal Design elements and awards points for homes that incorporate the following practices:

  • No-step entrance
  • 36-inch-wide accessible route from the no-step entrance into the dwelling unit including spaces like visiting rooms and an accessible bathroom
  • 36-inch-wide accessible route from the no-step entrance into at least one bedroom
  • Blocking or equivalent in accessible bathroom wall for future installation of grab bars
  • Lever door handles for all doors
  • All sink, lavatory and showering controls complying with the ICC A117.1
  • Power receptacles, communication connectors and switches placed between 15 and 48 in. above the finished floor
  • Rocker-type or other similar type of switches for all lights
  • Wireless mobile device-controlled HVAC, lighting, alarm system or door locks

With the release of the 2020 NGBS, Home Innovation launched its new NGBS Green+ offering. The NGBS Green+ UNIVERSAL DESIGN certification is one of the six NGBS Green+ options and recognizes buildings that are constructed to support the concept of “aging in place” and reduce the need to expend effort and resources to remove, relocate, or construct a new home.

The benefits of an accessible home extend far beyond individuals with permanent mobility impairment. Accessible features can make a home more visitable, for infants, young children, older adults, or even to accommodate transitory immobility from injuries.

The goal of green certification programs like NGBS Green is to minimize the home’s environmental footprint and improve the home’s sustainability, which includes allowing people to remain in their home even when facing mobility limitations. While the benefit of accessible homes for a person with a disability largely exceeds the minor costs of construction, choosing features like accessibility for green homes helps achieve that balance by allowing the house to be a home of all people. Improving accessibility of our homes reduces the need for publicly funded assisted living facilities, and this is increasingly important as the U.S. population ages.

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