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Home Modifications & Building Codes

by Louis on September 5, 2007

Some things come up over and over. One issue I see too often is tension between those trying to make homes accessible and building code officials. There are really no special guidelines that cover residential access. Too often plan review or construction inspection officials see things about which they are unsure and resort to codes that do not apply. Trying to enforce multifamily or commercial codes does not make sense on homes. Problems crop up with turning spaces too hard to achieve in a home, grab bar placement, and entries that are not attractive and call too much attention to special needs unnecessarily.

Some problems come from well meaning officials who don’t really understand the issues, don’t know much about diversity and don’t have a clue about the rationale behind the rules they do know. Other problems come from arrogant officials who don’t like to admit they don’t know a rule to meet the situation. Some just apply things in order to throw their weight around.

The ANSI 117 standards are the foundation of most access codes including Fair Housing, ADA, UFAS, etc. These rules are designed to be inclusive and accommodating. In order to do so they homogenize and idealize persons with disabilities instead of recognizing individuality. That is okay. This is public accomodation. Sometimes a ‘political’ solution is necessary to move rulemaking forward. Some rules are compromises built by committees to accommodate diverse needs and constituencies. It may be give in to a ‘bee’ in one bonnet and take a ‘bug’ from under the rug of another. It may be the best way to quiet a vocal committee member. Those politics should not dictate what people do in their home.

The goal in most home modification projects is far different. It is to meet the needs, ease the burden, fill the gap and otherwise accommodate an individual’s life in their own home. No one really uses the bar at the back of the toilet. It comes from a compromise between the number of bars and the width of the stall. But I have had code officials demand that it be installed in someone’s home because they are used to seeing it.

I recently had a client who has no muscle control of his arms. But he can walk. You get a situation like this and some code guy says “Oh, handicap. Make sure you put the bars in according to the rules.” I don’t know that the guy doesn’t mean well, but this client won’t be helped by bars and certainly not the one at the back of the toilet.

Another example is handrails on ramps. The reasons and differences in ramp rail requirements are a little confusing. Sometimes when they are a standard three feet apart they may help someone using a manual chair pull up or slow down. But folks using electric chairs or scooters don’t need the rails. I know they should have a curb to keep from rolling off. Worse is the demand for extensive rails and lots of pickets on a sloped walkway on grade. The rails don’t keeping you from falling off if the thing is right on the ground. The rails just call attention. They may make a vulnerable resident a more obvious target to someone casing the house.

There is plenty of need for home modifications. We don’t need tension among those who should be working together make it happen. I hope more home modification projects will make building officials comfortable with a wide range of solutions to meet the diverse range of personal needs.

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