Realtors call it curb appeal--the first look of a home and yard. The housing industry has long known the importance of that first impression. According to Zillow, curb appeal is one of the Top Five decision factors for home buyers.
So let's examine just the outside of a typical home, offering recommendations about accessibility and safety that may improve curb appeal, especially for those who recognize the importance of safety. Does this mean making the home look like a hospital or institution? NO. Are these ideas only for older adults and those with disabilities? NO.
These ideas are aesthetically pleasing and practical. Who will benefit? The immediate benefit is to the builder, contractor, tradespersons, and product suppliers, because it makes the sale easier and faster and keeps them in business. The long-lasting benefits are for the homeowner and their visitors. Yes, these ideas improve the home's value, but most importantly they improve accessibility and safety, bringing a comfort level to the homeowner that may allow them to continue their dream of staying in their home for many years. It's what we call Living In Place.
Let’s start at the curb, taking a walking tour around a typical home. We will not talk about the 1% of Americans who use a wheelchair or the 3% that use some sort of devices to help them walk, because if you follow these recommendations, outdoor spaces will be accessible not only for those individuals but for anyone doing gardening, carrying a child or groceries, or walking hand in hand with a loved one.
We understand that every home has unique challenges. Housing professionals are naturally creative and to them, no challenge cannot be overcome. They know that utilizing a team of experts from different professions is the only way to solve complex problems.
Finding the House from the Curb
Are the house numbers easy to see from the curb? Make it easy for visitors and emergency response teams to easily find the home. Large visible numbers on a mailbox or on the house are a must. Light letters on a dark background are easier to see; think highway signs. Lighted or reflective numbers with a light will make them easy to read.
How smooth is the surface? Most driveways are either concrete or asphalt. These surfaces are usually smooth and do not create tripping hazards. After a while, the soils under the driveway can shift, causing uneven surfaces and creating a tripping hazard and making it difficult for a wheelchair or walker. The solution is to either smooth or replace the problem area. Some driveways are pavers, cobblestones, or stamped concrete. Some are dirt or gravel. Unfortunately, not much can be done to improve those surfaces. At a minimum, pave the area from where a car would stop and people would go into the house.
While we are still in the driveway, allow enough space for a person to exit or enter a car without stepping off the driveway surface. Open your car doors and measure from outside of one door edge to the outside edge of the other door. This should allow enough room to comfortably and safely step out of a vehicle carrying a child or sacks of groceries, or to help a family member or friend. And be sure the slope is not too steep.
Walkway to the Entry Doors
Walk with a friend side-by-side and measure how much room you need. You will be surprised and wonder why most walkways are between 24 to 36 inches. Be careful to make these surfaces smooth. How smooth? If your grocery store shopping cart will stop when a wheel hits a tiny pebble, imagine what it is like for a wheelchair. Make the walkway smooth and free of bumps. Right-angle corners on a walkway can add a challenge; we suggest curving the corners or widening areas around the corner.
If the walkways are long, suggest creating rest areas off to one side. If the house is in an area with freezing temperatures, we recommend heated walkways or portions of a driveway. Snow and ice-melt systems must be designed and installed by experts who understand your climate. Lighting should be added using automatic motion-sensor switches, timers, or light sensing devices with LED lights.
Good design avoids having any steps. If building new, you can do this by designing the entry elevations to allow for no-step entry, including grade considerations and usually a covered entry. If conditions don't allow a no-step entry, then allow a space, with proper electrical outlet nearby, for a future vertical platform lift, stair lift or inclined platform lift.
If steps are there to stay, be sure the risers no not exceed a quarter-inch difference from step to step. Contrasting colors make it easier to see each step, and non-slip materials should always be used. One easy and immediate solution for safety on steps is to add adhesive traction tape to the edge of each step. Handrails should be installed on both sides of steps. It goes without saying that all stairs and handrails are to be code approved. To help keep a person safe, extend each railing at least one foot beyond both the top and bottom of the steps so that an individual can hold onto it as they are entering and exiting the staircase.
Lighting is important on steps, so be sure to consult with a lighting expert to recommend what type of lights should be used, the amount of illumination needed, what controls should be acquired, and exactly where all should be placed to ensure maximum safety. LED lighting under handrails is beautiful, efficient, and safe. All lights should be operated by a light sensor switch, a timer, smart phone, or voice-activated home device such as an Amazon Echo or Google Home.
Entry doors should all be at least 36 inches wide. A porch or level area at the door should be large enough to allow several individuals to congregate when entering or leaving the house. Be sure there is at least 18 inches of space on the handle side of the door so no one falls off the porch or steps off the entry area. A package shelf next to the door is handy to set small items down when opening the door. Create a horizontal space at the entry 6 feet by 6 feet to make it easy for a person using wheelchair or walker to open and close the door. Door thresholds should be no higher than quarter-inch or preferably, no-threshold.
Technology has made unlocking, locking, and even opening doors easy. Deadbolt locks that can be controlled by a smart phone or tablet from anywhere have become inexpensive and easy to install. Door knobs should be replaced with levers or push/pull styles. When recommending a lever handle, be sure to use only those with an end that angles back to the door. These are required in public spaces by the Americans with Disabilities Act. They keep a hand from falling off the end of the handle and help prevent clothes, purses or backpacks from snagging on the open end.
Walkways Around the House
Everyone should be able to walk around their home without falling over. Use the same method we used for walkways to the doors to decide the width of each walkway. The same rules apply that we used above in the driveway, walkways to entry doors and steps.
If your electrical panel is outside, all the above rules apply to create a clear and easy access when a circuit breaker needs to be reset. If remodeling, suggest moving the panel indoors for easy access, especially during bad weather.
Storage sheds should be easily accessible. Water outlets should be easy and safe to reach. Remember automatic lighting for those areas. Minimize home maintenance chores. Cleaning gutters is very dangerous, so we suggest installing gutter guards or hiring a professional to keep the gutters clean.
Raised garden and flower beds can be attractive and easier to reach for someone with a stiff back or sitting in a chair while tending to their crops (let along keeping pesky rabbits from munching on prized vegetables or fruit).
Playgrounds and Pools
When do you have enough safety in play areas? Never! Your responsibility is to find the right experts to ensure all the parts, pieces and designs are as safe as possible. Pools present a greater challenge. Pool companies know how to reduce hazards. Child safety experts can be invaluable for understanding safety in playgrounds and pools. To make pools accessible for just about everyone, install a pool-side lift or a gradual sloping walkway into the water.
Some homes have kitchens and entertainment areas outdoors. All the above rules apply, plus many more. Consult with a certified kitchen designer to ensure that all appropriate safety rules are followed.
Ramps, when installed by professionals, look seamless as good design. If a ramp is installed, recommend no more slope than 1 inch rise for 18 inches of length. An alternative to ramps is sometimes a sloping walkway. For all these, be sure there is proper lighting, rest areas and turn areas about six feet by six feet.
These are just a few ideas you should add to every project. Explain to your clients the importance of safety for them, their families and friends who visit. For information about how you can make all outdoor areas more accessible, comfortable and safe, contact a knowledgeable and certified professional in your area. Remember curb appeal. If it looks good to the client and you know everything is as accessible and safe as possible, only then then will the client will be comfortable and enjoy their independence with dignity as the enjoy their lives, Living In Place.