Mind The Gap

I was only three months old when my father was injured in an industrial accident that rendered him a paraplegic. Growing up after the accident, I experienced the built environment from the unique perspective of travelling around with someone who uses a wheelchair. My father and I rarely entered a building in the same way as the majority of others; the service entrance was the norm for us. We were also less likely to visit friends at their homes. Helping my father up to the front door from a set of exterior stairs was both dangerous and a reminder that he had less independence than others. Even when we did visit someone else’s home, our stay was usually short because my father was unable to use the washroom. It is because of these types of experiences that I chose to work in the field of architecture. And working as an architect, I now realize how easy it is to design a building or space to be more useable by more people, including persons with disabilities. The concept of “visitability” is one of the simplest and most economical approaches to universal design that can address homeowners’ and community needs over time, contributing to a more flexible and sustainable built environment. Visitability ensures that everyone–regardless of mobility–will be able to at least visit someone else’s home and use the washroom.

Visitable homes are constructed to be more accessible by having: one entrance into the home with no steps; a 32-inch-wide clear passage through all main floor doors and hallways; and a useable bathroom on the main floor.

Visitable homes do not include full accessibility features for people with disabilities. But the three simple requirements of visitability do allow a person with a mobility limitation to at least enter and visit the occupants of the house. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation has stated: “By 2031, the number of seniors over age 75 will grow by 277 percent to about 4 million, up from 1.5 million in 1995. The number of seniors in the over-85 age group will more than triple to over 1 million from 352,000 in 1995.” Many in this growing senior population will have mobility limitations. If we build visitable housing today, the future economic benefits will be vast.

I have completed close to 100 accessible dwelling modifications ranging from $10,000 to over $200,000 in construction costs. I am constantly challenged to design accessible home modifications to be economical, beautiful and sustainable. Given the statistical information that we already know, what an incredible waste of resources if we build homes today, only to tear them apart 10 years from now to make them accessible for persons with disabilities.

The concept of visitability is important for so many reasons. In new construction, total added cost for visitability features is typically less than $1,000, with no extra square footage required to accommodate the universal design needs. This would reduce future renovation costs by thousands of dollars.

Visitable housing responds to the increasing seniors’ population and their desire to “age in place.” The vast majority of elderly persons prefer to remain in their homes as long as possible. With today’s housing stock, this is virtually impossible.

Visitable housing promotes socially sustainable communities and provides residents with choice as housing needs change over a lifetime. The intent here is to simplify life for everyone by creating housing that is more useable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost.

Visitable housing promotes safety by reducing stair-related injuries for residents and visitors. Residents could also live at home if they were ever to suffer a temporary or permanent injury as a result of an accident; this would reduce the length of stay in a hospital environment.

Visitable housing is more adaptable and flexible for persons with disabilities as well as persons carrying groceries into the home, transporting a stroller or moving furniture.

Visitable housing needs to be beautiful and invisible so that everyone uses the home in the same way, and such that the visitable features blend in with the architectural style of the home.

Visitable features can easily be incorporated with other building innovations such as affordable design, green architecture and energy efficiency. Resale value of a home with visitable features should not be negatively affected as the features are invisible in the design. Why does there seem to be a lack of acceptance of visitable features in housing design by developers, builders, designers, policy makers, jurisdictions, organizations and individuals?

There is a continued dearth of knowledge surrounding the concept of visitability. The building industry most often likes to keep repeating the construction processes it is familiar with, and general contractors do not like to train subtrades on unfamiliar construction methods unless they see immediate, short-term financial benefit. Architects and other designers are often motivated in the same way unless they are paid specifically to research a concept of visitability. Organizations and individual homeowners are also reluctant to pay for such research by architects and other designers. Most research then is conducted through government-funded grants. Governments at all levels are generally reluctant to enforce too much legislation on the development and building industry. Currently, there is no legislation specifically addressing visitability in Canada. Only government-funded public buildings require universal and adaptable features to benefit persons with disabilities, but the single-family home is not part of this legislation. Sweden first started using the term visitability in 1976. The concept slowly filtered throughout the rest of Europe, the United Kingdom (Lifetime Homes), Japan, Australia (Smart Housing), the United States and finally Canada. Research shows that the majority of visitable housing has been built with financial assistance from one or more levels of government.

Today, there is a rapid increase of visitability legislation in the US which demonstrates a growing awareness of the need for housing with specific features that afford all individuals, especially those with disabilities, independent and safe access.

Disability groups and advocates have been very successful in getting visitable housing legislation passed, and they played a significant role in the promotion and monitoring of this legislation. Such activism and promotion has led to a positive development for visitability in the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. A LEED point is now given in the Neighbourhood Development Section when designers incorporate basic universal access into single-family homes. My personal quest is to help other architects learn more about universal design more generally and visitability specifically. Frank Lloyd Wright stated that “form and function are one.” To me, this means that architecture involves making buildings and spaces as accessible to as many people as possible. Today, too many architects focus on the business and aesthetic dimensions of design, and little attention is given to the end users of their creations. I know from personal experience the benefits of focusing on the end users of a building or space. I have had the satisfaction of seeing someone independently access his/her home or a public building for which I am responsible. With my own house renovation, I poured a new sidewalk leading to the front door that provided smooth, on-grade access straight into the front door. Before the renovation, three steps led up to the front door, and my wheelchair-bound father had to park his van in the driveway and phone us to come out and help him inside. After the renovation, my father can now wheel himself straight into our family home. It was a seemingly small design gesture–but one with a huge emotional impact.CA

For more than 10 years, Ron Wickman has been a leading advocate for barrier-free design in buildings and landscapes. As an architect, his commitment to accessible housing and his award-winning practical and functional designs have earned him national recognition as an expert in accessibility and barrier-free design.

For more information and resources on visitable housing in Canada and to share initiatives that are occurring in your province, please visit www.visitablehousing.com.