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Accessibility Requirements Spark Debate


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All newly built homes in Austin, Texas could soon have to include some features to accommodate people with disabilities, a change that could make homes more accessible but also more expensive.

The City Council will consider new rules Thursday that would require features such as levered door handles, light switches placed at low heights and wide doorways on the first floors of new single-family homes and duplexes.

The council OK’d drafts of the rules in May and December 2013. Thursday will be a third and final vote.

The Home Builders Association of Greater Austin says the changes would add an average of $2,000 to the cost of new homes, limit design options and impose disability-accessible floor plans on buyers who don’t need or want them.

“You could give me the newspaper’s entire front page and I could fill it with the problems that are created by this ordinance,” said Harry Savio, the association’s vice president of public policy.

Supporters say the changes will make homes safer not just for homeowners or visitors in wheelchairs, but the elderly and others with physical limitations.

“As the population ages, more and more people are going to need some degree of access,” said Stephanie Thomas, an organizer with ADAPT of Texas, a disability-rights group that advocated for the changes.

With accessible features, elderly residents or visitors and those with disabilities “won’t have to do gymnastics poses just to do simple things like switch on a light or plug in a phone,” said Thomas, who has been in a wheelchair since 1975. “And you’re not asking a friend or family member to strain themselves to help you get into a house or around a house.”

Depending on how broadly “disability” is defined, an estimated 2 to 20 percent of the population has one.

The city of Austin estimates that at least 1,500 homes a year would be built under the new rules — or 22,000 accessible homes by 2030, said deputy building official Dan McNabb.

Austin already requires a few accessible features in new homes, such as a wide doorway in any first-floor bathroom.

The new rules, which have been in the works for two years, would be broader. They would not apply to most remodeling projects or additions, or to new apartments, which have separate rules requiring accessible features, McNabb said.

Cities such as San Antonio, Atlanta, St. Petersburg, Fla., and Tucson, Ariz., have similar requirements.

Under Austin’s proposal, new homes would be required to have a full- or half-bathroom on the first floor, with an opening on the door that’s at least 30 inches wide — about two inches wider than the standard, McNabb said.

All light switches and thermostats would have to be installed no higher than 48 inches. Electrical outlets would have to be at least 15 inches above the floor. Most first-floor doors would have to have easier-to-grasp levered handles instead of knobs.

First floors would also have to have 32-inch doorways to create an open pathway that allows a wheelchair to move into common areas such as the kitchen, living room, dining room and bathroom.

Split-level designs would still be allowed on first floors, as long as there is a clear path to the bathroom that does not include steps, McNabb said.

Starting in January 2015, all new homes would have to have at least one “no-step” entrance — a path or ramp from the outside to the inside that a wheelchair can use.

McNabb said the city is considering allowing builders to seek an exemption from that rule if their lots are especially small — less than 3,600 square feet — or have very steep slopes.

Savio from the homebuilders’ association said the changes would add substantial cost and time to designing and building new homes.

Among other concerns: Low-placed outlets and switches can be a safety issue in households with pets and young children; levered handles are more costly than knobs; and requiring a wide path around the first floor will restrict creative designs, he said. It will also be very difficult to include no-step entrances and comply with the many other rules the city has for developing a lot, such as rules that prohibit too many paved surfaces and the felling of large trees, Savio said.

Still, making homes more disability-accessible is simpler and less expensive to accomplish on the front end of construction, said Stuart Hersh, an affordable housing consultant and former city of Austin building official.

“The cost of retrofitting these things (later) can range into the thousands of dollars,” he said.

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Comments (10 Responses)

  1. Mike McCracken says:

    This should be mandatory in all homes being built. Lever handles make life easier for people with arthritis, carrying bags, holding a baby.
    I do not see how it would be possible for these small changes to add up to $2,000. Round knobs are easily replaced with lever handles. Any local vendor will charge less than $40 per handle. Doors are approximately $50 more. The interior will be cheaper with less drywall, studding, and finish product. Outside entries will cost, but not average anywhere near what is being claimed.

  2. Dennice Hartkop says:

    These objections are absurd. If you are talking about regulations that affect the whole of new builds and not just a few, the ability to negotiate for bulk buy discounts on the doors and knobs remains for the builders. The design of a house is not affected by installing outlets in the same position in rooms, just a slightly different location on the wall where they would have been installed anyway. If you’re talking labor costs, forget it. I’ve installed these items in my own home by myself with no formal construction training whatsoever.

  3. David Snow says:

    I applaud the City Council of Austin. Makes sense to me.

  4. Gael McCarthy says:

    I am just completing the build of a new home that is completely handicap accessible because I am in a wheelchair and suffer partial paralysis. I designed the home, which is @ 2,000sq. ft., to have lower switches, higher plugs, no steps, higher toilets (arguably the single most important element), walk (or roll-in) shower, and 4 foot doorways. My walk-in closet has room enough for my wheelchair with lower shelves and drawers, and lower rack for me to use. All the door handles are lever and my cabinets have handles so I can grasp. We selected windows that I can use with one hand, and my shower controls are lower and have a hot-temp control so I don’t burn myself while adjusting the flow. My kitchen cabinets have a couple of pull out work surfaces and I’ll have a french door refrigerator with the freezer drawer on the bottom. I have a front-load washer and dryer. My builder worked with me every step of the way, listened closely when I explained how I would use items and space in the house. There is not one thing in my home that is not comfortable or easily used by someone who is not physically compromised. My builder even used stronger roof supports in case I should some day need a “swing conveyer” built in to help me move through the house. The difference in costs? Absolutely minimal my builder with 30 years experience tells me. Since he knew from the beginning what and where I needed adjustments, he was able to work with the plumbers, electricians, and cabinet makers in the design and pricing stage.

    We are a population that is aging. I am 66 and I cannot get into any of my friends’ and families’ homes without a lot of embarrassing efforts. And I know they have other family and friends who are in the same predicament. How can we as a society ignore the obvious? To build these needs in now is basically transparent. To do it later will cost thousands. Who will benefit? The building industry.

  5. Janet Diehl says:

    I’ve read other articles that state that building a house or apartment to meet Universal Design or Accessibility requirements does not add much, if any, cost. There is no way to fore see how ones body will be in 1 year let along 10 years. When a friend with a broken leg comes to visit, a child gets cancer, arthritis sets in, an elderly parent moves in, your wife is in a car accident & needs a wheel chair to get round, your son falls & injuries his rotater cuff & can not reach regular electrical switches, or if you start to fall in the shower, you will be mighty glad to have basic accessibility features in your home!!!! I rejoice that electrical outlets will be higher, switches will be lower, safety railings will be around tubs & shower, etc. It is about time!

  6. Linda says:

    Builders, like many others, are alarmed by change. Adding universal design or accessiblilty upfront is relatively inexpensive and will add to resale on a home. When I had my house built I had all doors made 32 inches wide, a standard size, and all of my bathrooms are accessible to someone using a walker or wheelchair just because of the doorway. The builder found it extremely simple to comply and it added no cost.

  7. Vonne Gulak says:

    Wow, sounds like Gael McCarthy’s home is a dream home. Would be neat to see what it really looks like. Am jotting down all the tips. And to applaud Hersch f& Thomas for their perception & support. Totally in accord with Diehl on unforseen happening to anybody. That is anybody which means everybody.
    Let’s pitch in and promote to all abodes in this country, whether it be a house, cabin, condo., & apartment.

  8. vmgillen says:

    Universal design standards add to the cost in two ways:

    1. the legal expense of trying to avoid compliance, and
    2. the automatic increase in cost of ANYTHING deemed “medical” (see bike tires v. wheelchair tires, eg).

    Everyone will be disabled at some point… death is the ultimate lack of ability, after all.

  9. Debra Young says:

    Glad to hear that more people are thinking about integrating these features into homes, however, the ‘fail’ here is not necessarily the push-back they are receiving from the home builders association, but rather their argument and rationale for making these changes to homes. These are universal design features; not accessible design. These features provide flexibility, safety and convenience for all residents within the home, not just persons who have disabilities/use a wheelchair. Although well-intentioned, this is a misrepresentation of Universal Design and perpetuates the negative stigma by continuing the confusion regarding the difference between accessible and universal design.

  10. Ali says:

    I’m glad to see that Austin is considering this change! State and local laws already require certain things in homes. Some are not even important, such as, what type of faucets to install. Requiring barrier free homes will become commonplace and will be a godsend to people as they age.

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