Photo by Drew Coffman
Photo by Drew Coffman

Vancouver, British Columbia, has become both a trendsetter and a punch line now that, as of March 31, it has started enforcing Canada’s first building code to require all new buildings—including private homes—to be accessible to people with disabilities.

This ordinance drew amused media attention because inside the lengthy, comprehensive set of changes was ban on doorknobs. (View the ordinance here; the doorknob ban is on the first page of appendix C.) Local builders and remodelers, though, weren’t laughing about new regulations. And they weren’t the only ones who thought this ban was misguided. “It countervails universal design [UD]” because the ordinance is prescriptive rather than performance based, says Wanda Katja Liebermann, an architect and visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley. 

Richard Duncan, executive director of The RL Mace Universal Design Institute, in Chapel Hill, N.C., isn’t a fan of governmental mandates, either. “Besides, it’s way more important that a house have the right door width” for wheelchair access than what hardware gets installed, he says. The ordinance trails the market, too: last year, Brinks Home Security brought out a line of knobs and handles that can be pushed, pulled or rotated to open doors.

Vancouver is Canada’s only city with its own building code, but other cities and provinces often follow its lead. Expect Vancouver’s influence, though, to only seep rather than sweep into the U.S. Attempts here to codify accessibility and “visitability” in private homes have been spotty. Congress considered, and rejected, versions of the Inclusive Home Design Act in 2007, 2009 and 2012. 

On the other hand, accessibility codes have made some municipal headway. This fall, the city council for Davis, Calif., is expected to vote on a proposed Universal Access Housing Ordinance, which if passed would apply to new single-family homes. Other cities have preferred to offer tax breaks and other incentives to encourage builders and developers to include UD features in their homes and communities. California’s Health and Safety Code also requires builders to provide buyers with a checklist of UD options.

Universal design isn’t more pervasive, suggests Liebermann, because architects remain “hostile” toward it, and because it’s not perceived as a societal imperative. Those attitudes, though, seem at odds with an aging population that wants to stay in their homes for as long as possible. Most of America’s housing stock isn’t built to address the needs of occupants as they become older and, perhaps, infirm. More than 17 million Americans have serious difficulties walking or climbing stairs, and 67 million could be arthritic by 2030. 

“We’re pretty unprepared for the population we’re going to have,” predicts Jennifer Molinsky, a researcher at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, which in September will release an AARP-sponsored report on the housing needs of aging Americans.