The intersection between green and accessibility in homes
By MARLA ESSER
I’d like to introduce you to Kelly. We met at an entrepreneurs’ workshop, and over lunch we struck up a deep conversation about living, working and getting around for her with a wheelchair and cane. As we have had more conversations, I’ve learned that Kelly wishes she had planned more for the progressive effects of her MS years ago when she was diagnosed. Her experience with a progressive disease is one many of us will have to work through for ourselves and/or a loved one. Her experiences offer insight into universal design and planning for what is likely to come in the future for many of us. The very idea of designing a structure to be long-lasting and serving its purpose well without many additional resources or modifications, is, in and of itself, a green or sustainable principle. It turns out that the intersection between universal design and green design is a way to offer better homes for more people.
For Kelly, smart design means the difference between being independent and relying on others, the difference between inclusion and exclusion, and the opportunity to live her life to the fullest.
Doesn’t everyone deserve this in their homes?
Imagine that you are Kelly, at home in a wheelchair. How do you reach the thermostat, get in the shower or your car? Nearly 20 percent of Americans today have a disability, yet ADA compliance only applies to multi-family and commercial buildings. Millions of single-family homes, both new and existing, are designed so that a person with a disability can’t use them. With thoughtful planning and foresight, homebuilding and remodeling can include universal design for thoughtful accommodations and sustainable, state-of the-art design.
Buyers are willing to pay more for the benefits they want in a home, especially health, safety, and comfort. Green design and accessibility intersect to offer design strategies to provide homes that work for anyone or everyone. Designing for green and disabilities or aging in place is conscious design—planning for the outcomes first, thinking ahead of what may be needed. With some common sense planning and foresight, homes can be built and remodeled to meet the needs and wants of anyone—with or without an accessibility challenge. With this way of thinking, we can create environments that are more inclusive often at little to no extra cost.
When planning and designing for accessibility for all, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) offers classes which can also lead to the CAPS Designation—Certified Aging-In-Place Specialist. While the designation is targeted for residential remodelers to learn skills for home modifications for aging-in-place, many of the elements are similar to or the same as designing for accessibility for all. More details about courses offered for the CAPS designation may be found at http://www.nahb.org/en/learn/designations/certified-aging-in-place-specialist/certified-aging-in-place-courses.aspx.
The ZeroStep™ Certification program offers resources and guidance for designing and building for accessibility. From their website https://greenhomeinstitute.org/introduction-to-zerostep-accessibility-for-homes/, “A ZeroStep plan should be so attractive that you don’t even realize it’s a ZeroStep home – it’s simply a home that everyone would want.”
Independent living is a goal for most people—no matter what their abilities may be. As a caregiver and/or loved one working with someone with disabilities, our goal is to provide this independence while ensuring safety. The Caregiver Partnership’s blog discusses exactly this point and offers tips for providing an environment that promotes “…independent living and provide(s) a safe, easy to maneuver living space.” www.blog.caregiverpartnership.com/2012/06/8-tips-to-make-your-home-wheelchair.html
Often an existing home or structure needs to be adapted to accommodate a person with disabilities. Modifications will usually follow the same guidelines as new builds or remodels, yet may not be quite as elegantly incorporated into the design – functionality may take precedence over aesthetics. Financial assistance for modifications can help too. The Council for Disability Rights lists possible sources of funding for modifications at
So back to Kelly’s story, which tells how a longer-lasting, more accessible home or building that serves more people is the key to the intersection between green and universal design. Kelly and The Abilities Works Project (AWP) help people build on their capabilities rather than their disabilities. The AWP is dedicated to matching qualified people with disabilities to custom employment opportunities to increase the workforce numbers and quality opportunities. She will happily put her experiences and lessons learned to work to help you work with or plan for people of all abilities.
Marla Esser is a LEED AP and NAHB Master Green Certified Professional, a Green Home Coach and the co-host of the Green Gab podcast. She may be reached at marla@GreenHomeCoach.com.