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Three Essential Elements of an Accessible Home

When designing a home for aging in place, or as an environment for stroke recovery, there are several ways to provide easy access and create a comfortable, independent living space. The following tips can be applied to the plans for a new build, or incorporated into an easy remodel.

1. The Universal Designed Open Home Plan

An open plan is easier for stroke survivors with mobility restrictions and difficulties with communication. It is advantageous to be able to see other people throughout the house and communication is made easier without having to move around corners or navigate doorways.

For wheelchair users, an open floor plan also has the practical advantage of not bumping into walls or scratching door casings. An open floor plan can also be beneficial for elderly people who wish not to move around a lot but want to be included in general activities and easily approached.

I want to be careful however not to imply that open plans are the only plan type that will work for a universal design home. An existing home remodel can also have room separation walls “opened up” and doors widened with appropriate structural analysis.

Open plans have advantages but they also pose significant design challenges. Defining room functions, differing floor materials and surface transitions, furniture arrangements, cross-area acoustics, colors and circulation patterns are all aspects of the interior that must be considered. These aspects are only but a few of the design parameters that would also include natural and artificial lighting, windows and more.

2. Smooth flooring and Surfaces

Differing floor surfaces is a fun and effective way to define different functional areas in an open floor plan. Many people, especially older people, take cues from the floor. Differences in texture and color are important for locomotion and depth perception.

Floor coverings for the main pathways throughout the home should be hard surfaced materials such as ceramic tile, impregnated wood, rubber or solid vinyl floor coverings. These should all have a nonskid, matte finish for minimum glare.

According to the ADA, a nonskid surface must have a dynamic coefficient of friction greater than .42, which is the force applied while moving. A rubber floor often exceeds this specification and can be a good selection as it also cushions falls. While the ADA does not legally apply to private housing, it is imperative in a safe and accessible home.

The finishes noted are easily used with wheelchairs, scooters, walkers with wheels and rolling carts. For people with allergies, adhesives and leveling compounds should be avoided if possible. At the very least, make sure all sub-flooring materials are Volatile Organic Compound free (VOC).

Consider laying tile in a diagonal pattern, making it easier to navigate on any device with wheels. This element will also add visual interest. Floors with a high percentage of vinyl resin are most resistant to stains while rubber and solid vinyl floors are the most resilient and dent resistant.

Floor coverings should be contrasting colors with the wall to highlight the edges of a room. It is also a good idea to contrast the floor with the furniture finishes. This can prevent falls and collisions for stroke survivors with low vision while sitting or moving through a room. Take care to avoid high contrast patterns in all floor coverings that can make small objects on the surface difficult to locate, especially for those with limited vision. Varying patterns can also cause confusion for those with dementia.

Light colored carpeting increases light quality throughout the spaces without increasing glare. Carpet also reduces the incidents of falls and provides cushion if they do occur. A pile height of 1/4-1/2” is best for wheelchair use and offers less resistance for all rolling traffic. A carpet surface that is too soft is too easy to sink into and may cause loss of balance. Antimicrobial carpeting can be selected to stop bacteria growth and are waterproof. These are most often used in healthcare settings.

3. Thoughtful Furniture Placement

Furniture should be placed so as to allow access to each item of furniture, storage, window and appliance. Ideally there should be three feet around each item and a clear circulation path of three to four feet through each space.

There should never be floor outlets across any floor surface. I specify in-floor outlets for central living areas so one can use table lamps and  assistive portable devices without the cords extending to the walls for electrical conection, thus creating a tripping hazard. Stroke survivors with limited in hearing or vision should arrange seating at right angles to facilitate communication.

In typical furniture layout the coffee table height is twelve to fourteen inches high, but a higher table reduces the possibility of tripping and lessens the amount of bending.

By: © 2012 Charles M. Schwab, Architect and author: Universal Designed “Smart” Homes for the 21st Century, 102 home plans you can order and build., Visit website

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"The following tips can be applied to the plans for a new build, or incorporated into an easy remodel."

Make or Remodel?

Often stroke survivors and their families become interested in remodeling parts of the home after a stroke to facilitate care. However, it is much more expensive to provide home modifications within an existing structure than it is to include universal design throughout the home in the first place.

In most cases, an existing home, a combination of home-modifications and a full home addition may make more financial sense, but a home-remodel with inclusive universal design features can cost as much as 75 percent more than if you build new. Structural adaptations that are often required  to enlarge areas such as bathrooms for wheelchair use are often the main cause for this increase.

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