When Single Story Isn’t Accessible

I met some new clients to look at a home that we thought might offer good access for potential wheel chair use. We ended up looking at a “single-story” house that happened to feature:

  • stairs up to the house
  • elevated entry foyer
  • a step down all around from the foyer
  • a sunken living room
  • steps up from the garage
  • steps down to the deck and back yard
  • another set of steps going down to what may have been a basement or wine cellar

It was at least one set of stairs too many for my clients to consider the house as suitable for their needs.  The listing agent had made a true statement that the house was  “single story”, but my real question should have been whether the house was accessible or had “universal design” principles.

One of the best terms for a house that is designed for anybody to use easily is “universal design”. There is a world wide movement to Universal Design based on the idea that environments and products should be usable by all people, regardless of their ages, sizes, or abilities. Because this movement applies to everyone, the concept of Universal Design is known around the world as “design for all,” “inclusive design,” and “life-span design.”

Another term that is often used is “aging in place” which implies a residence that is flexible enough to enable individuals to live independently in their homes for as long as possible. You shouldn’t have to relocate because your home is too difficult to get around in. The house my clients and I looked at was the opposite of a “universal design” home.  Everywhere you turned there was a barrier to easy access.  It’s not that the architect was an idiot, but that as a society we have not thought carefully enough about making residential design easy for everyone.

Universal design has great potential for beautiful architecture and wonderful interior spaces. A few, simple universal design principles include an emphasis on wide enough halls and doors, easy to operate plumbing and lighting, and knee space in appropriate kitchen and bath areas.  The more we ask for universal design principles in new construction and remodeling, the easier it will be for people to find homes that will accommodate their needs, no matter what those needs are.

Universal Design Poster in PDF

Universal Design Web Resources

Skip to content