Color & Control:

Accessible Design: Prepare for the Payoff

By Ron Wickman

A new housing trend is fast approaching us.

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) has indicated that by 2031, the number of Canadian seniors in the 75-plus age group will grow by 277 per cent – to about four million from 1.5 million in 1995. The number of seniors over age 85 will more than triple, to over one million. Our baby boomer population has been driving the Canadian housing market for the past 25 years, and they will continue to do so as they retire and move into old age.

Just how are we going to accommodate this generation?

I am an architect with a great interest in housing. I design dwellings, both affordable and unaffordable, for living in well not just living in. For me, the focus is not bottom-line profits, but quality of design. This doesn’t mean that I do not understand economics and the need for profit making. It simply means that I put a citizen’s right to high-quality housing above profit making.

As one of the four national winners of the 1995 CMHC FlexHousing Competition, I am very familiar with the concept of housing design that is adaptable, accessible and affordable. What I realize now is what little choice we have in housing. I am shocked at how few choices there are in our housing market for person with disabilities, especially when we consider the needs of our aging population.

And here is what has become my toughest task: to convince private developers and builders that flexible design not only is a positive way to design and build, but also makes economic sense.

For the developer and builder who is willing to listen, I emphasize three key design features that allow for a dwelling to be more adaptable, accessible and affordable: providing for easy wheelchair access to enter a dwelling; providing for easy vertical wheelchair access within a dwelling; and providing for a wheelchair accessible bathroom.

I have completed drawings for over 50 accessible home renovations. I know from experience that these three concepts have the greatest influence on the degree of difficulty and expense of a home modification. Most Canadian homes have a ground-level-to-main-floor distance of at least two feet. Interior stairs are often narrow, turn 90 to 180 degrees, or curve, and bathrooms are often too small for someone in a wheelchair to use. With these conditions, an accessible home modification always involves an expensive addition – and sometimes city or town bylaws will not allow for one.

Providing for on-grade access (“visitability”) at a dwelling’s entrance is an easy task to complete. For attached garages, the garage-floor level should be even with the main-floor level. This eliminates the need in the future for ramps or mechanical lifts, both of which are costly and often difficult to aesthetically “fit” with an existing dwelling.

I recently completed a second-storey addition to my own 1960s bungalow. Part of this renovation was to complete a new front driveway and walkway to the main entrance door. We poured the new sidewalk to gently slope from the public sidewalk to the front door, so steps would no longer exist. I can tell you that it was a satisfying day when my father wheeled up to my front door and into my house, without assistance, one Saturday afternoon.

Vertical access
In a flexible home design, I always allow for at least three feet of width in the staircase. At least 5′-0″ x 5′-0″ of space should be at the top of the stairs, and at least 5′-0″ W x 8′-0″ L of space should be at the bottom – this will allow for the future installation of a wheelchair-accessible stair platform lift. Another great idea is to construct an elevator shaft within a new dwelling design. This is essentially a six-foot shaft space that can be used as storage closet space until an elevator is required.


A wheelchair-accessible bathroom should be at least ten feet by ten feet. The most common standard bathroom configuration is five by eight. In the FlexHouse project that I built with Habitat for Humanity, I designed for a wheelchair-accessible bathroom that is seven by eight feet. This is not the ideal – however, it works!

There are many other issues to consider when planning an accessible home modification, such as parking, doorways, hall widths, closets, kitchen, laundry and flooring. However, these typically do not affect a home modification to the same degree as the three areas described above. To make adaptable, accessible, and affordable housing more commonplace, the general public must be more demanding of FlexHouse features. They do not cost much more at the initial time of construction. Down the road, the investment may pay off – many times over.

(Edmonton architect Ron Wickman can be reached at or (780) 430-9935.)

Lead Photo: Binyamin Mellish

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