Accessible Cabin Design for a Flexible Future

Dear Jane,

We have always known that when we permanently move up to our lake property, we will need to remodel and update our cabin to provide the “comforts of home” versus “a cabin escape.” As we begin the planning process, how can we ensure that remodeling completed today will allow installation of accessibility features if needed in the future?

-Tom and Judy, Stillwater, MN

Dear Tom and Judy,

After you retire, have you every thought about selling your home in the city and moving to the “peace and solitude” of your weekend retreat? If so, you may be planning on remodeling or updating your property to provide the “comforts of home” and create a gathering place for all generations of your family to foster fond memories.

In doing so, this is a great opportunity to incorporate basic design concepts and “fine tuning” to address any future mobility or aging issue of yours or your guests.

Start by designating one entrance as a primary, future, accessible entrance. If you have a stoop or deck, construct the level landing at the door so it is the same height as the threshold. The size of this platform should be a minimum 5 feet by 5 feet … that would allow future installation of a ramp off of it if needed. Remember to provide the same minimum 5 feet by 5 feet of clearance on the interior side of the door as well … so as to have ample floor space on both sides of the door to enter and exit your home comfortably. A “covered” entry is preferred so the entrance is protected from rain … and snow, if you are in a colder climate.

Eliminate the need to rely on steps when planning the interior. Having one bedroom and bathroom on the same level as the kitchen and living area is ideal. These rooms should be located on the same level as the accessible entrance. You may also want to consider incorporating the beginnings of an accessible “egress route” disguised as a deck off the bedroom in which a ramp can be easily attached onto it in the future.

Doors that are relocated or replaced should be widened to allow installation of a 36 inch door … or consider installation of French doors, which can create a wider opening when both doors are open.

Wheelchair access available when both doors are open.

Before installing drywall or wall tile in bathrooms, reinforce all walls surrounding the toilet, bathtub and/or shower to provide a proper surface for future installation of grab bars. The preferred method would be to install marine grade plywood over the wall studs extending the full height and width of walls surrounding these fixtures. This will allow great flexibility down the road if grab bars are needed.

If you are considering replacing the toilet, install a toilet with a taller seat surface. All of the major plumbing manufactures offer a residential model that provides a higher toilet seat … but it still looks like a standard residential toilet.

When reconfiguring bathroom and kitchen areas, provide a minimum 30”x48” clear floor space centered in front of toilets, sinks, tub/shower, and appliances. Often times, when creating an accessible bathroom or kitchen, open knee space below counters is desired for seated use at a vanity, sink, cook-top and work area. If you would rather wait on this access feature…at least install the floor material under cabinets so you don’t have to replace the flooring later when modifying cabinetry. Installing a sink and countertop over a base cabinet…which could be removed at a later date … is also another option. Providing a large mirror that extends to the backsplash can be done now with little additional expense allowing use when standing or sitting.

Avoid luxury sized whirlpool tubs as they are more difficult to get in and out of. A standard bathtub is easier to get in and out of, and if needed, can accommodate a bench seat and hand-held shower sprayer at such time getting into the tub is difficult and reach ranges are limited. Installation of a shower unit without a “curb” is the most flexible solution unless major remodeling is to take place, but we suggest installing them into a bathroom with tile floor instead of vinyl flooring. Avoid shower units with doors as they are typically too narrow to get into easily if you have any mobility restrictions. Instead use a weighted shower curtain at the entrance and install the curtain rod a few inches inside the shower to ensure that the curtain drips inside the shower.

If ordering new kitchen cabinets, incorporate pull out shelves in base cabinets…and attempt to incorporate a pantry. Pull out cutting boards are useful as they can provide an accessible work surface in the event you need to sit while preparing a meal or, provide open knee space below one section of counter. Select “D” shaped cabinet pulls for cabinet doors and drawers as they are easier to use in the event you loose some of your grasping ability, e.g. arthritis.

Any new faucet or door hardware should allow lever operation as they are easier to operate, especially if you have limited strength or dexterity.

Firm floor surfaces such as laminate, low pile carpet, tile and hardwood are easier to maneuver over …and are more durable. The transition from one floor surface to another should be neutral with no abrupt rise. This will eliminate potential tripping issues.

These tips should give you a starting point in assessing your remodeling options. During this planning stage, visit a variety of manufacturer showrooms to see the assortment of options open to you that will make your cabin “home sweet home”.

Jane Hampton, CID, CAPS

President, Accessibility Design, Inc.

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