ADA and Accessibility: What’s the Difference?

Contact: Jeff Augello
AVP, Association Counsel
(202) 266-8490

Q: I want to build single-family homes that will appeal to older buyers, and I think I’m supposed to include accessibility features. What’s the difference between ADA accessibility requirements and Fair Housing accessibility guidelines, and which ones do I have to use? And where does universal design fit with all that?

A: You are on the right track. Adding accessibility features — and there are many more than just grab bars — will certainly be welcomed by your buyers.

But first let’s sort out the various requirements. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers employment, public services, public accommodations and telecommunications. The Fair Housing Act’s accessibility provisions apply to multifamily housing. The accessibility standards of the ADA, the Fair Housing Act — and most building codes — do not apply to private single-family residences.

When building a home that will appeal to older buyers, remember that you are dealing with older people with age-related changes. They see themselves as active and healthy; they may have difficulties with some daily tasks, but they do not consider themselves disabled.

Many in the 50+ age group are seeking a home that will allow them to stay as long as they wish, as independently as possible — to age in place. Universal design features help keep people in their homes when health needs change. This is the most common and accepted definition of universal design: an approach to design of all products and environments to be as usable as possible by as many people as possible regardless of age, ability or situation without the need for adaption or specialized design.

Here are some ideas that you should incorporate in the design of your home.

  • Create a no-step entry to the home. A no-step entry makes access easier for a person pushing a stroller or with an arm load of packages, moving furniture or appliances, or someone with a walker or wheelchair.
  • Provide weather protection at the entry.
  • Use flat or very low thresholds at doorways and between flooring changes.
  • Use 36-inch-wide doors with lever hardware and at least 42-inch-wide halls and stairs.
  • The plan should allow one-story living with a bathroom, bedroom and laundry on the main floor.
  • Use rocker-type light switches placed a maximum of 42 inches above the floor, and outlets placed 20 to 24 inches above the floor.
  • Use easy-grip door, faucet and drawer hardware, such as levers, C-shape or D-shape hardware.
  • Your design should place appliances so they can be used conveniently from either a standing or seated position.
  • Controls for appliances, HVAC systems and other equipment should be easy to reach, see, use and understand.
  • Provide plenty of lighting throughout the home — older eyes need more light.
  • Use easy-to-operate windows. All opening, closing and locking functions should require minimum effort and gripping.
  • Plan to have work surfaces at various heights so they can work for various users, either standing or sitting.
  • In the bathroom, provide a curbless shower with a wide entry, a seat, a hand-held shower option and a chair-height toilet.
  • Prepare the bathroom for grab bars. Use ¾-inch plywood on the wall for universal blocking before installing the wall board, so future installation of grab bars is possible when it becomes necessary. Provide extra tile for home owners to patch tiles when grab bars are installed or moved.
  • Include reachable storage, including low cabinets, full extension drawers, open shelves and adjustable height shelves and rods.

Remember — although you are marketing to older buyers, a home with universal design features will appeal to a much wider base. Universal design accommodates people of all ages and abilities and is often low-tech, simple and inexpensive. The most successful universal design means that neither the home nor the users need to adapt it for successful use. Universal design makes homes and communities livable for people of all ages and abilities.

George Cundy established his practice in 1985 to provide quality, personal architectural services to low income and lesser served clients with the belief that all projects must reflect the highest level of professionalism. He has been very involved with NAHB on the national, state and local level as a national director and the 50+ Housing Council Board of Trustees. He is on the Builders Association of Minnesota board of directors and chairs the 50+ Housing Council of the Builders Association of the Twin Cities. Cundy is a member of the Universal Design Consumer Education Task Force, a coalition dedicated to enhancing consumer and industry awareness of universal design.