Q: In past years, I seem to remember a movement to have architects and builders promote universal design, with at least one bathroom with doors wide enough for wheelchairs. Did this idea totally die because of cost?
A: We’re happy to say the universal design movement is alive and well. In fact, there is a Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University. You can check out the website here.
If a home is initially designed and built for people with varying degrees of physical abilities, the increased cost is negligible. Retrofitting is another story and can run the gamut from installing $10 grab bars to a $40,000 elevator.
As the baby boomers get long in the tooth, more emphasis is being put on aging in place.
Our former editor at The San Francisco Chronicle, Lynette Evans, and collaborator Monika Weiss are developing a new website called A Friendly House. It features universal design with special emphasis on aging in place. It’s worth checking out at www.afriendlyhouse.com.
Weiss spent a number of years in Spain, where multigenerational households are common. In her words, "Each apartment complex held its own narrative of challenges, such as the five-story building with no elevator, where, over time, the grandparents’ outings would be limited to doctor visits and special occasions. Or the eight-story building that had an elevator but no ramp for the lobby stairs despite a wheelchair-bound resident who had grown up there."
We can relate. Both of us have recently entered our 60s. We have the physical challenges that come with age, and a few more. Kevin has multiple sclerosis and Bill suffered a spinal cord injury in an auto accident years ago. We’re both still active, but we sure do appreciate it when we run across a home or office that makes it easier for us to get around.
To answer your question, wide doors are a small but important part of the universal design concept. Smooth, ground-level entrances without stairs, wide hallways and functional clearances are but a few additional features of good universal design. The goal is to make the space accessible and useful for people of varying physical abilities.
Virtually no existing homes were designed with aging in place in mind. So today, if we want to stay in our homes we’re left to retrofit. Enlarging bathroom doors is a good place to start.
Replacing a 30-inch door with a 36-inch one requires a 12-inch clearance on each side of the door frame. Light switches may have to be moved and some new framing has to happen. It will cost some money, but it shouldn’t break the bank provided there is enough space to enlarge the opening.
Step 1: Remove the old door, door molding and door frame. The 2-by-4 framing will be exposed. Remove the drywall one foot on either side of the opening to expose the framing.
Step 2: Enlarge the rough opening. A 36-inch door requires a 38-inch rough opening. The opening is framed with two studs extending from the floor plate to the top plate and two cripple studs to support the header. The total width of this unit is 42 inches.
Step 3: Reinstall the drywall to create the rough opening. Tape the seams and texture to match the existing wall.
Step 4: Install a new 36-inch prehung door in the rough opening. Trim it out and paint.
It’s a good idea to get a professional opinion on whether the opening is in a load-bearing wall. If it is, the retrofit is probably better left to a professional. But if the opening is in a non-load-bearing wall, a talented do-it-yourselfer equipped with a hammer, Skil saw and reciprocating saw can handle the job.