Thinking Bigger: Making the Most of a Small House

Dear Jane, I’m 47 and live by myself in a small, Cape Cod style home in a Minneapolis suburb. I […]

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Dear Jane,

I’m 47 and live by myself in a small, Cape Cod style home in a Minneapolis suburb. I have only 750 square feet on the main level (two bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen and living room) with a half story above (where my guests stay) and a full unfinished basement below. It’s small, but paid off. Since my accident a year-and-a-half ago, I have used a power chair and am ready to make a change. Although moving into a bigger house and facing a mortgage once again is my knee-jerk reaction, I love my neighbors and community and the support they give me, as well as no mortgage. I really don’t want to move. What can I do that I haven’t already thought of?

David, St. Louis Park, MN


Dear David,

Small homes are a challenge for wheelchair use, but give us an opportunity to think “outside the box.” Your home was probably built between 1940 and 1955 during a time when there were fewer belongings, and people lived “simpler” lives. Storage and places for our stuff is often the biggest issue in conflict with wheelchair clearances and reach ranges. My suggestion to you is to think of your home in terms of “task stations” and not as traditional rooms or areas. This will allow you to “multi-area” spaces …similar to “multi-task,” but spatially. Assuming that entering and exiting the home has already been made accessible; the following ideas come to mind:

• Consider arranging doorways to reflect a more accessible traffic pattern and avoid redundancies and hallways. Lack of visual privacy may be a trade-off, but could be resolved with an alternative visual barrier such as curtains over the passageway, etc.

• Consider removing all furniture that doesn’t have at least two purposes (three, if you have the guts). Then, rearrange what is leftover to meet your needs. Keep in mind that you bring your chair with you and nice folding chairs and tables can be tucked away when not in use by your guests. A living room with only one loveseat or chair is okay.

• Use wall space with a great deal of thought. Items that “normally” would be placed on a counter top or table may be able to be mounted on an adjacent wall, freeing up valuable counter space (e.g.; phones, mail files, clocks, lamps/lights, shelves for monitors, etc.).

• Allow areas for bookcases: the top can be a writing surface and the shelves can store things within reach. A hook could be mounted on the side of the bookcase to hang your backpack (or purse) for easy access to its contents.

• Really get a handle on the clothes you wear. Most of us use only one-fourth of the clothes we own. Eliminate those you don’t (and won’t) use and make sure your storage for them “makes sense.” Where do you get dressed? Where do you wash them? Where do you soil them (and quickly need to change)? Placing the washer and dryer and clothes storage in the bathroom can be a space saver as well as make sense and enable you to be more efficient with your actions.

• Get realistic about your “culinary art” of cooking and eating. Have you used the oven lately, or is the microwave your style? Consider downsizing to a counter top or cabinet hung toaster oven and microwave and remove the full-size oven from the equation totally. Installing a cooktop can allow for knee space and better access to items on the counter or cabinets above.

• Install pull-out cutting boards in the kitchen cabinets as well as in other cabinets throughout the home to provide for more work surfaces for placing and sorting contents.

• Consider removing the bathtub and making a roll-in shower so the shower floor can be used as open floor space to position your wheelchair for a safe transfer onto the toilet. If the bathroom is really small, consider incorporating either the toilet or sink (not vanity) in the shower area, but protect the toilet paper from water spray with a partial wall or some other design feature.

• Remember that you may have the basement and upstairs that is also paid for and waiting to be used…if you can get to it. Vertical access provided via lifts, elevators, and stair glides can sometimes double your usable square footage and quickly justify their expense.

This list is just a sample of the many access features and space “stretching” ideas when remodeling a home for wheelchair use.

Do you have a question? Send your question in and we will cover your questions in future issues of Access Press. Please send them to [email protected] or call 651-644-2133.

Accessibility Design was founded in 1992 to enhance lives through design and project management. They provide design, consultation, project management, and product recommendation services specializing in home access for individuals with disabilities at all stages of life.

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