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Master Plan Your Living:

Accommodating Progressive Change in Your Needs

By Karen L. Braitmayer, FAIA

…consider changes to both your house and your lifestyle for remaining in your home as years go by. Planning for the most significant changes imaginable and then breaking those down into “phases”…

When a prospective client approaches an architect to get started on a house remodel, they often suggest that we start on just a part of the project “for now”. Doing a project in phases allows a client to commit a smaller amount of money to the project, to address the most urgent issue and to see how they feel about a remodel project in their home. A diligent architect will suggest that any work on the design, even if it is going to be done in phases, include an overall design concept for the whole house – a “master plan”, if you will. This way, changes made to accommodate the remodel to the downstairs bathroom that might be an urgent need now, doesn’t limit the future changes for the neighboring kitchen when it is time for that phase of the project.

The same approach should be used to consider changes made to both your house and your lifestyle when remaining in your home as years go by. Planning for the most significant changes imaginable and then breaking those down into “phases” is a simpler way to meet a budget and adjust to those changes over time.

First step is to sit down with paper and pencil and list the challenges that you might face in the future: perhaps you might have a loss of mobility and require assistance from a device such as a walker or a wheelchair. Perhaps you may have a partial loss of vision or hearing. Perhaps you may lose dexterity in your hands due to arthritis or weakness in your strength.

Each area of challenge should have possible changes to make. Include as well how to continue activities that are important to you. Do you entertain in your home? If so, making your social area easy for you to get to and participate in the activity is important. Plus perhaps making sure your kitchen allows you to continue to make your famous pies is a high priority? Do you like to get out of your home to shop or socialize? Then getting to and from your home should be top of your list.

For mobility loss, consider:

  1. How you might get in and out of your home.
  2. If you have a garage, will you be able to get in and out of a vehicle in the garage and then enter the home without steps?
  3. Is there a main floor bathroom and bedroom?
  4. Can you move about your home, through the doorways and halls?
  5. Is your bathroom usable when using a wheelchair or walker?

For vision loss, consider:

  1. Do you have good lighting in your work areas, such as the bathroom and kitchen?
  2. Do you have good lighting both inside and outside at the entrances to the home?

For dexterity loss, consider:

  1. Do you have easy to grip knobs or pulls on your doors or cabinets?
  2. Do you exert effort to open your doors or appliances?
  3. Do you reach high above your head to get everyday items, such as in the kitchen or bathroom?
  4. Do you bend down to use appliances or reach things frequently.

After listing your concerns, mark each with a ranking: important to less important. Then working with an architect, designer or Senior consultant, determine easy ways to solve the issues that are most important to you. Use that information to create a plan for how you might tackle each issue based on the importance and potential cost in phases, as you can afford.

Preventing Falls in the Bathroom

Grab bars are essential

By Karen Braitmayer, FAIA

It is well known that falls are the leading cause of injury in the home, and older adults are the most likely to experience injury from a fall.

In bathrooms, the chance of injury from a fall is increased because you are falling against a hard surface. Sinks, vanities, and tubs create raised surfaces to bump against if you lose your balance. Floor surfaces are often slick with water, and loose rugs are easy to catch a toe on, contributing to the risk factors. The bathroom should be a top priority for fall prevention review.

The combination of water and soap underfoot makes the bathtub or shower the first place to consider fall prevention methods. Does the tub or shower have a slip-resistant floor surface? If not, a simple rubberized mat can be added. Does your tub or shower have grab bars on the walls or tub edge to steady yourself as you step in or while you are standing? If not, these can be added.

Grab bars are useful to assist in stepping over the tub edge, especially when the tub and floor surface is wet. These should be mounted on the walls, using the studs in the wall as structural backing within the wall for support. A qualified handyperson or general contractor should mount the grab bars, ensuring they can support 250 pounds of weight pulling down suddenly and remaining stable even under the increased force applied if someone falls against it. Shower stalls also benefit from grab bars, both inside and out of the shower. Bars should be mounted horizontally about 36 inches above the floor (of the shower or tub) around the walls of the tub/shower. A short vertical bar should be mounted on the wall with the showerhead near the tub/shower opening and directly above the horizontal bar, to act as a handle when stepping in/out or when leaning down to adjust the water temperature.

Are the towel bars installed to withstand falling force? When people lose their balance, they often grab the nearest thing handy—often the towel bars around the room. Increasing the structural reinforcement behind the towel bar allows it to bear weight similar to that of a grab bar without pulling out of the wall.

Are there rugs on the floor? If so, be sure they have rubberized or nonslip backing to prevent trips and falls.

Are there grab bars by the toilet? While some folks imagine grab bars alongside the toilet are there to assist with rising off the toilet, grab bars at the toilet can also assist if you feel woozy or unsteady when seated. Grab bars should again be mounted horizontally, about 33 inches to 36 inches above the floor on one or both sides of the toilet. Mounting them into the studs of the walls is just as important here. Don’t have walls near your toilet? Then a device that adds grab bars mounted on the toilet itself may be useful. Available at big-box retailers, these toilet seat handles usually attach to the toilet under the actual seat and have bars that curve down and support one end on the floor.

Thinking ahead to prevent falls in the bathroom will save you worry and energy—and potentially save your health as well!

Choose Appliances That Make Your Life Easier

Consider both convenience and safety

By Karen Braitmayer, FAIA

Although the Maytag repairman ads would like you to think appliances last forever, they don’t. When it is time to replace your appliances, think carefully about all the features available in the marketplace, and choose ones that will make your life easier.

Safety in the kitchen should be top priority for your selection. Consider cook tops or ranges with controls in the front or to the side of the burners. Reaching across a hot pot or burner to turn on or off the burner is a safety risk. For people who are seated when they cook, and for those who are shorter than average, this risk is significant. Ranges in all price ranges come with controls on the front edge. If you are concerned about small children accessing the front-edge controls, side controls are the better choice. Consider if the knobs are easy to grasp and give some feedback regarding whether they are on or off, both visually (a light on the surface comes on) and tactilely (do they “click” into place when turned to the off position?).

Front-control ranges also come in the “drop-in” models in all price points. These have the advantage of being shorter than the standard floor-mounted models and may be appropriate for creating a lower cooking surface if the primary cook(s) is seated. These can be placed in cabinetry to adjust their height to standard now, and the cabinetry can be removed in the future if the user may be working from a wheelchair in the future.

Refrigerator/freezer combinations are available now in a wide range of door combinations. Try a variety to see what works for you. The side-by-side models have been the most recommended models for wheelchair users because they provide easy access to both freezer and refrigerator compartments. Confirm that the space in which you are locating a side-by-side allows you to open the doors to their full extent to ensure clear access to the interior.

Dishwashers are getting sleeker, and more models have hidden controls. Check out the buttons and the labels for those buttons to ensure that they are high contrast and easily read. If you are creating a new location for a dishwasher, consider raising your dishwasher to put the racks higher so you do not have to bend over to load/unload.

Washers and dryers have come the farthest in making accessible units commonly available. Front-load washers and dryers are all the rage in the industry, in part because they are easier on the items being washed and in part because they are easier on the person doing the wash! All front-load washers and dryers have controls in the front. Most front-load washer and dryers come with pedestal as accessories to raise the appliance to a height that bending over to reach in is not necessary. If the standard pedestal causes the machine to be too high, a contractor can create a box just the right height for you, so that taking the clothes in/out is just the right height. Some washers even have soap reservoirs, allowing you to load a whole jug of laundry soap once in a while, and it adds the soap for you for each load. How convenient!

Those are just a few of the interesting advances in home appliances that might benefit those of us who want to stay in our homes and work safely and efficiently.

Happy Anniversary, ADA!

Signed into law July 26, 1990

By Karen Braitmayer, FAIA

I usually write about housing issues in this column, but today, dreams of community access come to mind. A significant anniversary is coming up soon, and I want to share my thoughts with you.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has its 20th anniversary on July 26, 2010. This groundbreaking civil rights law was intended to “establish a clear and comprehensive prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability.” This protection is intended to be similar to that afforded Americans on the basis of race, religion, sex, national origin, and other characteristics through the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Disability is defined by the ADA as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.” The determination of whether a particular condition is considered a disability is made on a case-by-case basis. Certain specific conditions, such as current substance abuse and visual impairment that is correctable by prescription lenses, are excluded as disabilities.

So, after 20 years, has the ADA made a difference? For this writer, it has! The ADA prohibits discrimination in employment, communication access, programs and services in state and local government, and access to community (public) accommodations. All of these are evidenced in my personal life.

I grew up, a wheelchair user from my elementary school years, in a small town in the ’60s and ’70s. There were no curb cuts on street corners or accessible parking spaces at the nearby shopping locations, though there were hand controls and other devices to modify cars to accommodate disabled drivers. When I learned to drive, I had to find that rare extra-wide parking spot to allow me space to park and get my wheelchair out of my car. It was rare that I could plan on a trip to a restaurant bathroom without a parent helping to carry me in. I learned to plan bathroom trips carefully, to always “go before you go out,” and to allow extra time for getting to a location because I might not be able to park.

Now, my daughter is growing up in a very different world. She is also a wheelchair user, but as a young teen, she hasn’t known a world limited by physical barriers in her community. She walks down to our neighborhood center with her friends, getting a push when the hills are steep, but not limited by curbs. Curb ramps abound in our neighborhood! She assumes I can park our modified van in an accessible parking space at any store, movie theater, school, mall, airport, or park that she wants to visit. She was shocked to find that not every restaurant has a fully accessible restroom, when 90% of our community restaurants are available to us (see, Mom is still right to say, “Go before you go out!”).

She sees adults with disabilities in nearly every work position she encounters. We know successful business, medical, science, and education professionals. She has role models in a wide variety of occupations. As a “wheelchair girl,” she knows she can do whatever she wants for a job in the future. (Well, she did check flight attendant off her list, after finally acknowledging that she couldn’t get down the aisle with the drink cart successfully. But that’s only one of many, many jobs out there!) And discrimination in employment is just one of the many barriers that the ADA is helping to break down.

She is still too young to notice the third benefit that I use frequently: access to communication. My hearing is declining rapidly as a part of my disability, and while my hearing aids help immensely, I still struggle at lectures or theaters. I have become quite savvy about getting assistive listening devices at symphonies, lectures, theaters, or wherever I can’t seem to catch what is being said. This is still a great job to me—that I can do things with friends out in the community and be a part of it all.

I wonder, at times, if all this benefit, invisible to my daughter because she has known nothing else, will go uncelebrated. Accessing my community independently still brings me intense pleasure, in part, because I cherish what I worked hard to obtain. Will our young people still hold its community access dear? There is still work to be done—our civil rights can still be removed or reduced. The ADA allows a community of people to be contributing members of our society, but we can do more! Many people with disabilities are waiting for job opportunities, to allow them to get involved, to contribute, to pay taxes. The ADA has made a change in our physical community; now we just need to change our attitudes along with it.

Happy 20th anniversary, ADA! I am looking forward to the next 20 years of change.

[Editor’s note: This article previously appeared in the Seniors Digest Newsletter of the Seattle-King County Advisory Council on Aging & Disability Services, July 2010.]

What the Fair Housing Act Does for You

“Reasonable accommodation” ensures equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling

By Karen Braitmayer, FAIA

You might assume that modifications to allow us to age gracefully in our own home are available only to those who own their homes. Perhaps you imagine that if you rent, you are not allowed to make change to your living environment and your only option for an easier living environment might be to leave your apartment. Not so!

The Fair Housing Act (FHA) prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, and sex. When the act was amended in 1988, it was changed to include discrimination against people due to disability and due to familial status (the presence of children under 18). The FHA is enforced by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This act makes it unlawful for any person to refuse to “make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, procedures, practices and services when such accommodations may be necessary to afford . . . person(s) [with disabilities] equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.”

The FHA covers most housing. It does not cover owner-occupied buildings with fewer than five units, housing operated by private clubs, and some single-family housing rented without the use of a broker. Multi-family housing is covered.

The FHA has been in effect for over 20 years, but both renters and landlords are often still confused about their rights. Recently, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and HUD jointly released new guidance on “reasonable modifications” under the FHA.

One type of discrimination prohibited by the FHA is the refusal by housing providers or homeowner associations to permit a reasonable modification when the modification may be necessary to afford the person full enjoyment of the premises. A reasonable modification is a structural alteration of the current building occupied by, or to be occupied by, a person with a disability. Although the housing provider or homeowner association must permit the modification, the tenant (or prospective tenant) is responsible for paying the cost of the modification.

Examples of reasonable modifications include widening doorways to make rooms more accessible to persons who use wheelchairs or installing a ramp to provide access to a public or common-use area, such as a clubhouse.

If a tenant makes a structural alteration to the premises that affects the use of the premises for the next tenant, the housing provider may require the tenant to remove that alteration. If the alteration doesn’t change future tenants’ use or enjoyment of the premises, the tenant may leave the alteration.

For example, if a tenant used a mobility device and made an alteration to widen the door to the bathroom to accommodate that mobility device, it is not reasonable for the housing provider to request that the tenant restore the door width to its original size, since the wider door does not substantially alter the use of the bathroom. If a tenant removed a bathtub and installed a no-step shower, the housing provider could reasonably request that the tub be replaced for the next tenant because a shower does not provide the same experience as a tub.

The FHA also allows for “reasonable accommodations.” Sometimes a policy or procedure may have a different effect on a person with a disability than on others. In these cases, modification of a standard policy or procedure may be required to allow a person with a disability equal opportunity to enjoy and use a dwelling as his or her neighbors do.

An example that is often used is when an apartment complex has a standard policy that all parking spots are first-come, first-serve. A resident who has substantial mobility impairment requests a reserved parking space close to the entrance to her building. Parking spots that meet her needs are near her building and are currently available to any resident on a first-come, first-served basis. The landlord must make an exception to the policy and allow her an assigned spot.

For more information on your rights and what to do if you suspect you have been discriminated against, download the 18-page HUD/DOJ statement Reasonable Modifications Under the Fair Housing Act.

Evaluating Lifts for Your Home

Selecting the right device for you

By Karen Braitmayer, FAIA

If you are looking for an alternative to stairs in your home, you probably think first of an elevator, but two other basic devices are marketed for home use: platform lifts and chair lifts. Both are common solutions to getting up stairs when climbing them becomes troublesome or difficult. Each is useful for different purposes and different users.

Chair lift

When walking up or down stairs becomes difficult (or even unsafe) a chair lift may be all that is needed to allow a user to sit and ride up/down a full flight of stairs in safety. A chair lift is a seat that runs on a track over an existing staircase and is intended for interior applications and retrofit applications in existing homes.

The chair seat should have armrests, a seatbelt, and a footrest to ensure a stable ride. The controls for the mechanism are on the seat arm, allowing users to control the movement independently. Chair lift tracks are designed to follow the stair, with most able to curve 180 degrees around switchback stairs or to curve to a bottom or top landing. The seat and footrest often fold up, allowing more room on the stairway for family members to pass by when the lift is not in action. Note that chair lift users who also use wheelchairs or scooters will need one for each floor served by the lift, since these devices cannot accompany users while they are ascending/descending stairs.

Platform lifts

If a wheelchair or scooter user wants to rise more than a few steps in a wheelchair, and a ramp isn’t practical, a platform lift would be a great solution. This device appears to be a mini elevator that is open to the elements. It consists of a four-sided box with gates on either end or side and an interior platform that rises within this housing to bring the user to the next level. These are designed for both interior and exterior applications and can rise as far as 72 inches. One manufacturer even calls these “porch lifts” because they are often considered as a solution to the problem of reaching elevated porches or garage entries when the vertical distance is too great for a ramp in those locations.

Platform lifts require house power, have controls both inside and outside of the device so they can be operated independently, and have safety mechanisms to prevent lowering the device onto pets or items that may have gotten below. They also have battery backups in case of power failure. These are appropriate for retrofit installations to existing homes.


Adding an elevator to an existing home is the most requested item I am asked about—and the most challenging one, too. An elevator is the most versatile device as an alternative to stairs: it allows users to ride in their mobility device if they have one, it is fully enclosed, more than one person can ride in it (depending on size), and it has increased safety and independence controls.

The addition of an elevator to an existing home requires finding a location in the house that allows a large shaft to be constructed that punches through multiple floors and a nearby area to contain the machinery. Some homes will accommodate a new elevator in an addition to the exterior of the home.

In new or remodeled homes, an elevator is easy to plan for, even for a future installation. Providing large closets stacked on each floor can accommodate a future elevator without the headache of carving out space in existing rooms. Regardless of the final location, residential elevators, when fully installed, are quite attractive, with doors that appear to be just closet doors and interior finishes that can match your home interiors. The addition of an elevator increases the usability of your home for you and future owners and therefore can boost the value of your home.

Each of these three devices can increase your independence and safety within your home. Evaluating your current and future needs and the particular conditions of your home will help you select the right device for you.

Attractive Ramps Increase Value and Safety of Homes

Ramps benefit everyone and every home

By Karen Braitmayer, FAIA

Are you worried that adding a ramp to your entry will create an eyesore? Ramps can be added to many homes in attractive ways that look intentional and discreet while enhancing value. An entry path without steps can make it easier for everyone to enter your home.

When choosing the right location for your future ramp, select the entry with the least amount of vertical change. Consider front entries, garage entries, and side or rear entries if they have a pathway to the street or driveway. Incorporating a ramp or sloped front walkway into your front yard landscaping makes new ramps disappear visually. Incorporating a ramp into a new front porch or side deck can also make a ramp look incorporated into the design of the home. Some ramps onto porches can benefit from being under the porch roof so users are protected from the weather.

The slope of a ramp is key to the safety of a ramp. A ramp that is too steep will make it more difficult—sometimes impossible—for a person who uses a wheelchair to push up the slope independently. It may be unsafe or excessively slippery in exterior locations, where the surface is exposed to weather and wet. It is a common error to try to create ramps with steeper slopes to fit them into small spaces or to reduce the apparent size of the ramp. This is strongly discouraged.

The maximum slope of a ramp for people to roll/walk on is 1 inch vertical to 12 inches horizontal (1:12). This slope is determined to be the maximum slope for strong wheelchair users. Some folks will find even this slope difficult or impossible.

Ramps of 1:12 or less are required to have handrails and edge protection on both sides. These handrails should follow the slope of the ramp and extend, level with the ground, 12 inches beyond the slope at both ends. Edge protection can be as simple as a curb or bumper 4 inches high on the each side of the ramp to prevent a runaway wheelchair from sliding over the edge and under the handrail. A safe ramp also has level landings at top and bottom that are large enough for a wheelchair user to turn around. You will appreciate this if you get to the top of the ramp and discover you’d forgotten your door key. You want to be able to turn around and go back down! A landing of at least 60″ x 60″ is required and will accommodate most larger wheelchairs and scooters.

For an easier, shallow ramp, a 1:20 slope (vertical to horizontal) is preferable. This slope works well when integrated into the landscape of a front yard or back yard—with the ground sloping up alongside and a lovely planting bed on one or both sides. Ramps of 1:20 or less don’t require handrails (another plus for landscape area ramps) and edge protection, although they do require landings at tops, bottoms, and turns.

Ramps benefit everyone and every home. They can make it easier to bring in strollers, grocery carts, luggage, new appliances, and other wheeled items. They are welcoming and usable for everyone. A beautiful ramp can add value to your home.

Visit for more information on the safe design of ramps.

Common Problems with Wheelchairs and Scooters

And common-sense solutions

By Karen Braitmayer, FAIA

Today I’ll address two questions I frequently hear from clients.

Question: My mom is due to have surgery soon and will be coming home for recovery. The doctors say she will need to use a wheelchair for a while during her rehabilitation period. What should I do to prepare her home so that she is comfortable?

Answer: Clear a path within her home to allow her to move around in her wheelchair. To test before the wheelchair arrives, take a yardstick, hold it horizontal at about 24 inches from the floor, and walk the path you would take from entry door to the rooms of the house you anticipate she will use. At doorways, you would hope to find a clear space of 32 inches.

Can she get into the bathroom? Is the doorway wide enough? If not, you might consider a narrower shower chair to slide into the doorway or a commode chair to substitute for the water closet.

Sleeping on one floor? Consider locating her bed and bedroom items on the lower floor for the recovery period.

Create a place for her to sit comfortably with family and friends in her favorite places in the house. Is there a place in the living room where she can sit to watch TV or socialize? Does it have a table alongside for her cup of tea or newspaper? Does the dining table have enough room for a wheelchair to sit comfortably? Most wheelchairs need 30 inches in width and 27 inches in height for a user’s knees and toes.

If she will be able to do some things for herself while seated, consider moving her personal items and basic kitchen items down to countertops or lower cupboards. Dishes and glasses can be stored at lower locations to allow her to get simple meals or snacks on her own. Microwaves located on counters can warm up meals or heat up a cup of tea.

Question: I have a sliding glass door with a tall threshold at the doorsill. I use a scooter to get around outside now, and that doorsill is tough to roll over. Are there ways to make it easier, short of replacing the door?

Answer: Add a wedge on either side! Sloped surfaces are much easier to roll over than vertical edges. Have your handyperson create some beveled wood inserts that match the width of the door. The slope can be as steep as 1 x 2 inches (vertical x horizontal) for distances up to three-quarters of an inch or 1:12 for distances three-quarters of an inch or greater.

Size each wedge for the vertical distance on each side (they may not match.) Metal threshold products that create slopes can also be found at commercial or big-box home repair retailers. When you fit the wedges to the door, make sure they don’t restrict the sliding of the door. While you are at it, is the handle easy to grip? Does the door open smoothly? You might enhance these features now, while you have a handyperson available.

A New Home: Choosing Well for Your Later Years

You’ll be glad you thought ahead

By Karen Braitmayer, FAIA

When you are seeking a home to live in for the years to come, what features should you look for to allow you to remain in your home as long as you wish?  Finding a home with one or more of the basic features means the home could be easily modified to allow aging in place. Add the bonus features and little modification may be required in the future.

Basic features

  • Entry with no more than two steps: An entry with no more than two steps to the door could be modified with a ramp that is modest in expense and perhaps less intrusive to the design of the home. Three or more steps to the entry or deck require a ramp that is longer and causes more impact on the look of the entry.
  • Full bath on the main floor with nearby room that could be converted to bedroom: Two-story homes with a bedroom and full bath on the main floor are more versatile for a family or couple’s changing needs. Visiting grandparents might appreciate not climbing stairs or the separation to children and teens. Once climbing stairs becomes less enjoyable, a couple could choose to move downstairs and live primarily on the main floor.
  • Wide hallways and doorways: If a family member needs a mobility aid such as a walker or scooter, he or she will appreciate wide doorways and halls. The extra width eases maneuvering with these devices, as users need less precision to enter these narrow spaces. Look for doors to bathrooms and bedrooms that provide 32” clear when the door is open at 90 degrees and hallways that are 42” wide.
  • Open kitchen: Kitchens with aisles between counters that are at least 40” wide provide the floor space to be modified to be usable when using a walker or wheelchair.

Bonus features

  • A no-step entry: Consider the benefit of a no-step entry at more than one door to the house. Don’t forget to consider the door to the garage, if the house has one. In some families, the main family entrance to the house is through the garage. Not having to climb steps when you cart in the groceries or bring in your golf clubs is an energy saver now and means that you could easily accommodate a friend who uses a wheelchair or scooter.
  • One-floor living: Having all the main living spaces on one floor means that when a family member is not up to climbing stairs, he or she can continue to meet all needs (eating, sleeping, bathing, relaxing) on one level.
  • Master and full bath on the main floor: Having a master bedroom on the main floor means that little needs to be done to allow one-floor living, even in a two-story home.
  • Laundry on the level of the master bedroom: The laundry is the second most significant work area in the home. Most laundry is generated in the bedroom/bathroom zone of the home, so locating the laundry on that level limits the lugging of dirty laundry up and down stairs (bedroom to basement) or long distances through the home. This saves “human” energy!
  • Main floor bathroom with clear floor space: If the main floor bathroom has enough clear floor space to allow a wheelchair to enter and roll up next to the sink, tub, or toilet, then it can likely accommodate a wheelchair user in the future, with modification to the specific fixtures.