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In the second of a three-part series on how building pros can help their clients gracefully age in place, we explore the difference between ADA compliance and simply meeting ADA standards, and how these guidelines can help achieve Universal Design. Read more about the value and necessity of creating living spaces that can adapt to aging homeowners in Part I of this series here.


Growing older in one’s own home is a compelling and popular concept, and the vast majority of older Americans want to live out this scenario. With the right amenities and features in place, aging homeowners can enjoy a familiar and comfortable environment, as well as proximity to their friends and family well into their golden years. Such a lifestyle is more cost effective, both for the aging person and for society as a whole.

As covered in the first part of this series, the concept of Universal Design refers to spaces that are attractive, useful and safe for people of all ages and abilities. The following knowledge can help you guide your clients toward spaces that will serve their needs for years to come.

Understanding the Requirements
Accessible design isn’t so much a choice as it is a requirement for public and/or commercial facilities like schools, restaurants, doctor’s offices, hospitals and hotels. These types of facilities must meet certain requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the updated 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design.
Single-family homes do not need to meet these requirements, however, they can serve as a useful guide for creating a universally designed bathroom or kitchen. While many stylish and accessible bath and kitchen products on the market are indeed ADA-compliant, you are free to choose a blend of these products and those that simply meet ADA standards. As a start, let’s explore some of the ADA’s guidelines for kitchens and bathrooms.

Accessible Faucets
When considering which faucets are best suited for an accessible kitchen or bath, functionality is paramount. ADA stipulates that all hand-operated devices, including faucets, meet certain requirements for operable parts. For example, devices must be operable with only one hand without having to grasp or twist at the wrist.
The ideal faucet for Universal Design has a lever handle or can be controlled by touch or motion sensing technology for automatic operation. Also, ADA requires faucets be installed in accessible positions such as the side of a sink.

Universal Showers
As discussed in part one of this series, helping to prevent falls is an important aspect of Universal Design. As such, showers must be designed in a way that makes them safe for all users without sacrificing the style and comfort the homeowner expects.
ADA requires that shower devices operate both as a fixed shower head and a hand-held shower with a 59-inch minimum hose length. Pause functionality (not a complete shut off) is required on the device itself, and temperature must be controlled at a maximum of 120ºF. Not only are these types of multi-use shower heads accessible for people of various heights or who use a wheelchair, but also make it easier to clean the shower.
When designing a shower, utilize a no-entry threshold for a stylish look that accommodates a wheelchair. ADA standards advise that 60-inch shower stalls with a zero threshold offer increased usability in the bathroom, while the maximum threshold is ½ inch. And installing controls that can be reached from outside the shower prevents a user with limited reach from enduring an initial blast of cold water when the shower is first turned on.

Inconspicuous Assistance
Grab bars near toilets and bathtubs as well as in showers help maintain balance, lessen fatigue while standing and assist in standing up. While they may not be top of mind for your client today, especially if they don’t currently have any mobility limitations, following ADA guidelines for grab bars is a forward-thinking strategy that can ensure the homeowner is able to safely and independently navigate their home as they age.
To be compliant with ADA, grab bars must be capable of supporting 250 pounds of force applied vertically or horizontally and should be mounted 33-36 inches above the floor. The good news is ADA-compliant grab bars have come a long way in terms of style and design. Today’s grab bars marry assistance with aesthetically pleasing options that seamlessly fit into any bathroom design. Some decorative options can even double as towel bars. How’s that for multitasking?

Other Considerations
To make the entire space accessible to everyone, take a few additional pages from the ADA playbook:

  • Install sinks no higher than 34 inches from the floor and ensure a knee clearance of 27 inches for someone in a wheelchair. Also, leave enough space around all amenities to accommodate easy navigation.
  • An ADA-compliant toilet seat must be between 17 and 19 inches above the floor to make sitting down and standing back up easier.

When in doubt, look for the ADA symbol or ADA-compliant notation to identify products that meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Though not a requirement in single-family dwellings, residential building and design pros can learn a lot by studying the ADA standards required of commercial and public facilities. Incorporating some of these design concepts into a home will help ensure your clients are able to age gracefully in place.
To learn more about this topic, we invite you to complete our CEU course, “Transforming Aging in Place to Aging with Grace in the Kitchen and Bath,” created in partnership with Hanley Wood University.