Designing for disability: Raleigh couple make ambitious home ADA-compliant

CorrespondentJune 28, 2013 

  • Checklists for aging in place

    Here are some recommendations to consider from the National Association of Homebuilders’ Checklists:


    → Choose a low-maintenance exterior (vinyl, brick).

    → Landscape with low-maintenance shrubs and plants. (Disease-resistant and minimal need for pruning and trimming.)

    Overall floor plan

    → Main living area should be on a single story and include a full bath.

    → There should be no stairs between rooms/areas on the same level.

    → Five-foot by five-foot space in living area, kitchen, bedroom and bath (for turning in a wheelchair)


    → Should be at least 36 inches wide, but wider is better.

    → Provide adequate lighting.


    → Should be flush if possible.

    Interior doors

    → Provide 32 inches of clear width, which requires a 36-inch door.

    → Choose levered door hardware, not knobs.

Second of a two-part series

Sixty-nine-year-old attorney Sam Southern is logic personified.

On a recent afternoon, he ticked off the reasons he and his wife, Mary, 64, added 1,200 square feet of space to the first floor of their North Raleigh home.

“I’m coming up on retirement age, and it’s time to ask: ‘What’s the best way to finish this race?’ ” he said.

The couple designed the addition to help them live with the infirmities of age, illness or injury, and “to play with whatever cards the future may deal us,” Southern said.

They wanted to go beyond just rearranging furniture and upgrading safety features in their two-story home. They wanted a new space where they could “age in place” – even preparing for the eventuality of walkers and wheelchairs.

“We anticipate staying here as long as we can, with assistance,” he said. If and when live-in aid is needed, there’s the empty master suite upstairs.

Their addition was featured on the Raleigh Homebuilders Association’s Remodelers’ Home Tour this spring. At least 250 people stopped in to see it – more than any other home on the tour. “They were people our age and older – people who are considering their options,” Mary Southern said.

Adding on

For nearly 30 years, the Southerns have lived in the house they built in 1984. They raised four children in the scaled-down Georgian home, its red brick, white trim and green shutters neatly blending into a well-landscaped half-acre lot. Their youngest is 23 and lives at home, while the other three and their children live in the neighborhood.

“We want to stay here until we can’t,” Mary Southern said. “We like this neighborhood – we’ve grown up with it.”

Their home has grown up with them, too. After three decades, the family room next to the kitchen is jam-packed with emotion-laced symbols of their lives together. “There are all kinds of posters in there, and a beer-bottle lamp,” Sam Southern said. “There are a lot of memories.”


The Southerns ruled out several alternatives, including selling their home and downsizing.

“For an older couple, it’ll cost you more to downsize,” said Mary Southern, a real estate broker. “First you have to find a home, and then there are renovations for special-sized doors and hallways, with hinges that swing both ways. And it’s a very expensive move, if you can find the house.”

They contacted architectural designer Thomas Betts, who’d helped in the past with a screened-in porch and a kitchen remodel. He placed the addition in an “L” configuration off the right rear, next to their two-car garage, a choice that preserved their landscape and gardens.

“I tried to make a connection where they could take advantage of their large backyard,” he said. The couple talked to 12 builders, but found most unprepared to work within the parameters of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Although ADA applies to commercial building, its guidelines – such as 32- and 36-inch doorways for wheelchair access – are useful for residential projects.

They finally settled on William Vaughan, a Wendell engineer and builder who was willing to listen.

“He was willing to investigate ADA, and he had the same enthusiasm that I did about making life easier as we get older,” Mary Southern said.

The addition

“We almost built a small house,” Vaughan said. “There’s a master bedroom and bath, a powder room and a foyer – and it all has to be big enough for a wheelchair.”

The new addition, completed in November after eight months of construction, is accessible at two points from the original house – through a serving area linked to the kitchen, and from the screened porch and across a deck. It also has its own front entry, set back from the main house under a scaled-down portico.

A 17-foot-long brick ramp, flanked by 16-inch-tall brick planters, leads up to the door. “We tried to disguise the ramp,” Vaughan said.

A left turn upon entry reveals a vista through a 7-foot-wide foyer with sitting area, out to a deck and screened porch beyond. The foyer is free of sharp corners; Vaughan sliced them off to widen the ratio for a turning wheelchair, and added a built-in curio cabinet.

Turn left, and you’re in the serving area next to the original kitchen. Turn right, and you’re in a 42-inch-wide hallway flanked by a powder room on the left and a laundry room/home office on the right. Both washer and dryer are front-loaders for easy access.

Flooded with natural light from two floor-to-ceiling windows flanking a French door that leads to a small porch, the hallway opens to a 16- by 19-foot master bedroom with bay window, seating area and fireplace. The room is large enough to accommodate a wheelchair around the bed, or into the closet or bath. The 8- by 17-foot closet incorporates low shelving, clothes racks and drawers.

The U-shaped bath boasts a 48-inch-wide entry and pocket doors that open up to two double vanities that will accommodate a wheelchair. A hallway lined with linen closets leads to an ADA toilet/bidet, raised three inches higher than usual, and with grab bars on its side and back.

Opposite it is a 6 1/2- by 8-foot alcove shower. Two drains eliminate the need for a door or a raised threshold, making it possible for a wheelchair to roll right in. Inside are a built-in bench, lowered soap dish, two grab bars and four shower heads – two hand-held and two fixed. Water temperatures can be set and locked in advance to prevent scalding.

Door handles throughout the addition are levers, not knobs, and because of the extra width of the doorways, two-way hinges were not necessary.

Cost and Payoff

The addition came in at $135 per square foot, Vaughan said; the couple financed it with a home equity loan. Its perceived value, though, surprised all three.

By the second day of the Remodelers’ Home Tour in April, word had gotten out. “The house was packed,” Mary Southern recalled. “One feature they all wanted was an enclosed backyard, and the other was ADA.”

“People would come up and say ‘OK, where’s the ADA stuff?’ ” Vaughan recalled. “And we’d say: ‘Well, you just walked up the ramp.’ ”

But its real validation was revealed in other ways.

“Four people offered to buy it,” Mary Southern said. “The ‘Me Generation’ is aging. The demand is there, but the supply is not.”

But boomers are a resourceful lot. They’re retiring in record numbers now and this is a generation that’s used to getting what it wants.

If they want to age in place, though, they’ll need an architect or builder who’ll take time to listen, and to understand.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications. He also edits and publishes an online design magazine at

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