Guidelines issued to help new urbanists design for the disabled


Philip Langdon

New Urban News


A new book, Inclusive Housing, explains how to build in ways that reflect New Urbanism while meeting the needs of disabled people.

Advocates for the disabled have frequently complained that elevated porches and raised ground floors — common features of new urbanist houses — put unnecessary obstacles in the path of people who use wheelchairs.

Now, after a decade of contention, new urbanists and the disabled appear to have arrived, for the most part, at a meeting of the minds. The newly published Inclusive Housing: A Pattern Book, from the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDEA Center) at the University at Buffalo, is the first comprehensive guide to achieving New Urbanism’s aims while ensuring that nearly every new dwelling is accessible to individuals with impaired mobility.

The book — written by Professor Edward Steinfeld, who directs the IDEA Center, and Jonathan White, an architectural research and design associate at the Center — embraces the logic of New Urbanism and traditional neighborhood development (TND), and shows how residences in a variety of urban and suburban settings can be made “visitable” by the disabled.

Significantly, the 144-page paperback published by W.W. Norton ($39.95) opens with a message from Raymond Gindroz, a former chairman of the board of the Congress for New Urbanism. “The concept of designing housing for the lifespan is one that no developer, architect, or builder can ignore any longer,” writes Gindroz, who is also principal emeritus of Pittsburgh-based Urban Design Associates.

“Through debate and collaboration, the authors and many practitioners of traditional urbanism and housing found new solutions, many of which are represented in this book,” Gindroz says in a preface. “These techniques and concepts were debated in may forums over the past several years,” including several CNU sessions, he notes.

New urbanists have often relied on pattern books to show how buildings can fit a community and help produce comparatively safe, sociable neighborhoods. The pattern book from the IDEA Center focuses on how to build in three zones of the rural-to-urban Transect: T3 (suburban), T4 (general urban), and T5 (urban center). The book omits the T1 (natural) and T2 (rural) zones because those areas — low-density, with plenty of land — present few challenges to accessible house design. The T6 (urban core) zone is omitted because housing units in a dense city core are generally served by elevators, eliminating barriers to the disabled.

Living on the level

The main bone of contention between New Urbanism and advocacy for the disabled has been the practice, promoted for years by new urbanist designers, of raising first-floor spaces and front porches higher than the streets and sidewalks. The difference in elevation allows houses and apartment buildings to be placed close to the sidewalks — where the inhabitants can easily watch over the public environment and converse with passersby — without compromising residents’ privacy.

Steinfeld and White contend there are “many other ways to maintain privacy and security and ensure sufficient informal social contact.” Among the techniques suggested by Inclusive Housing are:

• Installing plantings and fences that can establish territorial control and a degree of privacy.

• Installing window treatments that prevent passersby from seeing through the lower half of windows near public spaces.

• Creating shared semi-private spaces to establish territory.

The authors do not argue against elevation changes in every instance, but contend that “they should not be viewed as the one best way” to combine encouragement of sociability and protection from intrusions. Much of the book tells — through text, photos, drawings, and plans — how to provide “basic visitability features.” These are:

• One no-step entry; it can be at the front, side, or rear or accessible through a garage.

• Thresholds of ¼ to ½ inch.

• Doorways with openings at least 32 inches wide.

• Hallways at least 36 inches wide.

• Access to at least a half-bath on the main floor.

• Reinforced walls near toilets, for future installation of grab bars.

• Light switches and electrical outlets installed between 15 to 48 inches from the floor.

The book also explains a more far-reaching concept known as “lifespan housing” — dwellings designed not just for disabled visitors but for full-time occupants who wants to continue living there after losing some physical abilities. “Over the course of a dwelling’s useful life, there is a 25 percent chance that any  individual house will have a resident with a disability,” the authors report. Aging of the American population makes it important to prepare for that eventuality, Steinfield and White say.

The book also looks at neighborhood design, block layout, lot planning, and proximity to services — factors that influence how well disabled people can live in a particular place. The book’s block, lot, and house designs are based on guidelines from the SmartCode — another testament to how thoroughly Steinfeld and White have allied accessibility with New Urbanism.

A series of drawings show options for grading land so that ramps — usually aesthetically undesirable — can be eliminated or minimized. In some cases, ramps can be incorporated into a porch or another house component.

Thirty-one pages of drawings, site plans, house plans, and text present examples of single-family and multifamily housing for various Transect zones. Most are in traditional styles, but some contemporary designs are included. The costs of visitable and lifespan features are explored in great detail. Visitability, the authors say, need not be expensive.

“By grounding this book on the principles of TND and tying them to current practices,” Steinfeld and White write, “we are able to demonstrate that perceived conflicts between the goal of accessible housing design and traditional design concepts are reconcilable.”

I noticed only two errors: The authors say the SmartCode used to recommend raising entries and porches near the street by 48 inches or more, and they report that this recommendation has recently been removed from the code. Sandy Sorlien, a SmartCode consultant, tells me that the recommendation was actually 24 inches or more. She says the current Version 9.2 of the SmartCode, which has been around for some time, still calls for a two-foot elevation of entries for residences and lodging in the urban general and urban center zones

But in the next edition, “we’re definitely taking out the mandate,” Sorlien says, confirming a promise that Andres Duany made during a “lifelong communities” design charrette in Atlanta in early 2009.

Given the depressed homebuilding market, which has drastically reduced housing production, it may be some time before the book’s impact on new urbanist building can be discerned. Will builders comply with the visitability recommendations? “They’d be crazy not to build a lot of visitable houses,” Sorlien says, if only because the baby boom generation is large and is getting creaky. The country is moving in the direction that Inclusive Housing prescribes.