What is “Visitability?”

Dear Jane,

My husband and I are thinking about building a new home. Lately I have been hearing this term “visitability.” Is this something we need to be thinking about for our home?

Julie
Edina, Minnesota

Dear Julie,

Congratulations—building a new home is very exciting; unfortunately, it can also be quite challenging. The Visitability movement began in the early 1990s to influence home construction practices. Its goal was that all new homes would be built with a few specific design elements that make it easier for a person with any type of mobility impairment—permanent or temporary—to enter and stay in any home.

Although Visitability laws vary from state to state, there are three basic design elements: wide passage doors, at least one half-bath on the

main floor, and at least one entrance without steps. Accessibility advocates in Minnesota are currently proposing adding three more features to this list: 30”x48” maneuvering space in the kitchen, lowered electrical switches and raised electrical outlets, and reinforcement behind bathroom walls for grab-bar placement (Note: Since these additional elements go above and beyond the basic features of the Visitability movement, and the new Minnesota legislation would use a different term.)

Here in Minnesota the Visitability legislation only requires the design features to be incorporated in certain cases where Minnesota Housing Finance Agency has provided financing for the construction, www.mhfa.state.mn.us. Please review your financing carefully to determine if you are required to apply the Visitability design features to your new home. Even if you are not required to incorporate Visitability features, after understanding how easy it is, you may determine that the benefits of incorporating these features from the start outweigh the risk of needing to add them at a later date. Here is more specific information regarding each element:

Wide-Passage Doors

Ideally, interior-passage doors should be 34” to 36” wide (this provides 32” to 34” of clear passage space when the door is open). The absolute minimum is 32″ of clear, unobstructed width. Keep in mind that a 30″ clearance might not be wide enough for many users. In tight spaces where a wider door would not fit, consider using a pocket door or adjusting the square footage of an adjoining space in order to accommodate a wider door.

Half-Bath on the Main Level

Visitability requirements state that there must be at least one-half bathroom on the main level and ideally it should provide a minimum clear floor space of 30”x 48” for maneuvering. You can always go above and beyond the minimum and provide a fully accessible, full bathroom on the main level of a home. This improvement would provide additional comfort for overnight guests, as well as the comfort of knowing that if you or anyone else living in the home ever has a mobility impairment you will not have to move or drastically remodel your home.

One Zero-Step Entrance

There are several options for achieving this feature. The zero-step entrance can be at the front, back or side of the home or from inside an attached garage. The lot can be graded so that no ramp, or a very short concrete ramp, is needed. If a longer ramp is necessary there are many ways to “disguise” one, and even make it an attractive design feature of the home.

Those opposed to Visitability legislation often argue that these features are cost prohibitive. The truth is that if planned from the beginning, these features add little, if any cost to the project. For example; a 2006 survey of wholesale door companies found that the added cost of a 34” door over a 32” door was less than $1.50 per door. In the average home it might cost around $50 to add wider passage doors. Depending on site conditions, zero-step entrances average approximately $100 or less for slab on grade construction and approximately $300-$600 for homes with crawl spaces or basements. In some cases there may be no additional cost at all. Finally, incorporating a half bath on the main floor of a home is simply a matter of planning. Worst case scenario, a Visitable home might cost you $150-$650 more when planned from the beginning. When compared to an estimated $3,000 to add a safe zero-step entrance to a home later, and $500 to widen each door, and tens of thousands of dollars it could take to add an accessible bathroom to the main floor, building a home with basic access features is a smart financial decision, www.concretechange.org.

Much of this information may seem overwhelming as you face the seemingly endless decisions to be made when building a home. Nevertheless, with a little planning, you can have peace of mind from knowing that you can welcome any guest into your home, as well as live in your home yourself, comfortably and independently, for the rest of your life.

Do you have a question for Jane? We’ll cover all of your questions in future issues of Home Access Answers. Please contact us at 952-925-0301, www.accessibilitydesign.com, info@accessibilitydesign.com.

Jane Hampton, president of Accessibility Design, founded the company 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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