Building a more accessible home, no matter your budget

Eliza Mills May 1, 2015

Building a more accessible home, no matter your budget

Eliza Mills May 1, 2015

When Staff Sergeant Matt Dewitt came home from Iraq, what he wanted most was to be able to take care of his family — to live comfortably at home with his wife and two young children, taking care of them as he always had. But the war left him wounded — both of his arms were amputated below the elbow.

Staff Sergeant Matt Dewitt. 

In his former home, day-to-day tasks became harder than usual. Simple things, like giving his kids a bath, were impossible; Dewitt couldn’t independently use the spigots or change the water temperature. 

Dewitt’s story echoes that of many people who, after an injury, illness or onset of disability changes their life, find themselves seeking a more accessibly designed home. 

In Dewitt’s case, the solution was a new home, built through a joint effort by the nonprofit Homes For Our Troops and PBS’s “This Old House.”

Armed with about $400,000 from Homes For Our Troops, the “This Old House” team built the Dewitt family a new home from the ground up. The entire house was designed with accessibility in mind: keyless entry, touchless faucets, temperature sensors, and rooms and showers without thresholds. Building this way uses a principal called Universal Design, and includes modifications meant to meet a wide variety of needs. 

The Dewitt home. 

“This Old House” host Kevin O’Connor says building or modifying a home to meet the needs of a person with a disability is a complex process.

“The first thing that really should happen with any renovation is to do an assessment,” he says. “You want to actually figure out: what are their needs? Are they in a wheelchair? If they’re not now, will they be in the future? Are they an amputee? Do they have a caregiver with them, and is that caregiver there part-time, or full-time?”

O’Connor says the best assessments are done alongside a healthcare provider — a doctor or therapist who can speak to their patient’s specific needs and make sure they’re being met, with the goal that someone can live in their home “comfortably and independently.”

For people adapting their home without help from outside groups or grants, modifications can be expensive. O’Connor says that there’s a wide range of costs for renovations, the most expensive of which involves making a two-story house wheelchair accessible with an elevator or lift. 

Fernando Hernandez, who was paralyzed at 19 by a tumor on his spine, has dealt with a broad spectrum of adaptations with varying costs.

When he first started using his wheelchair, Hernandez was attending USC, and he moved from his apartment into an accessible dorm. His family moved into a more accessible house, but it still had two stories, so they spent about $17,000 on a lift. Other modifications to that home brought the grand total closer to $30,000. 

When Hernandez moved into his own home three years ago, he was working with a much different budget.

“I wanted to do very little modification to the house,” he says. “I definitely was looking for a one story house, and wide door openings, and an open concept house.”

Hernandez modified his home by adding a few short plywood ramps his friend built to help him go more smoothly over thresholds and small steps. Instead of widening his doorways — something O’Connor says can cost about $450 per door — he bought special hinges for about $5 each. They pull the door outside of the frame, allowing a few inches of extra space to get through in a wheelchair, something that Hernandez says is important to him, since he’s six-foot-six. 

Hernandez made his home more accessible with aesthetics in mind, and some of his favorite accessible furniture wasn’t made especially for people in wheelchairs, but serves two purposes. His headboard, for example, includes a bar to help him transfer in and out of bed, and his dining table is pedestal style, so he can roll right up to any spot. As accessible design becomes more mainstream, people designing and furnishing homes with accessibility in mind have more options, and lower costs.

One exception? The bathroom.

“The bathroom is one of the big areas that does require quite a bit of expense,” Hernandez says, “and definitely money well spent if you do all the safety things that you need to.”

In his bathroom, Hernandez has a shower bench, a couple grab bars for stability and a wheelchair bathroom bench, which sits over the toilet. Hernandez says that even the bathroom renovations were doable on a DIY budget: grab bars cost about $25 to $100, depending on size and type, and his shower bench was about $100. 

O’Connor says even for people without disabilities, renovating accessibly is important, and is becoming more so as people purchase homes with plans to stay there as they age.

“Right now in this country, there are well over 40 million people who are 65 or older, and in my experience, that is the population that is driving these changes.” O’Connor says. “It’s making people think ‘Hey, if we’re going to renovate, maybe we should get rid of the bathtub, and maybe we should put in a curb-less shower’…and we are seeing that from perfectly able-bodied young people thinking forward. These changes are coming to the American home.”

As accessibility in the present and the future becomes more important to people, universal design becomes more prevalent in buildings and houses. Universal design is the reason behind the increase in the number of homes with master bed and bathroom suites on the ground floor. It includes touches as obvious as open floor plans and as small as paddle door handles, which may be easier on arthritic hands than round knobs. 

O’Connor says that big building companies are already taking note, and that accessible options are out there for people who want them.

“There’s no doubt about it that this is already there,” O’Connor says. “People probably don’t even know that they are buying features that would be considered universal design.”

To learn more about the Dewitt home and the “This Old House” veterans project, tune in to “This Old House” on PBS starting May 14. 

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