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Posted at 05:30 AM ET, 06/11/2012

My renovation saga: Needing a lift later in life

As I decline, I will need a little lift.

 “Aging in place” has become a buzz word these days. It’s easy to get used to the “in place” part. Getting used to the “aging” part isn’t so easy.  Even if I am in good shape now, this could change in an instant. A broken hip can suddenly make it hard to climb a step. Arthritis is likely to make mounting a whole flight very painful.

In the new house I’m building, the entire path from the street to the front door will be one straight ramp with a very small incline. There won’t be any thresholds that can’t be traversed in a wheelchair.  All doorways will be wide.

So far so good. But the house’s footprint will be small because I want to preserve as much garden as possible. This means that it will be necessary to have a basement and a second floor with two bedrooms. A staircase will serve these two stories, and this will be fine until I reach the point where I can no longer climb the steps. 

My architect, Peter VanderPoel, has allocated a 5- by 5-foot space on all three levels for an elevator. We’ll also put in an 8-inch depression in the basement floor where the cab can sit. I will probably wait to install the elevator until I need it and can use the space for closets in the meantime.

Still, I wanted to find out what my options will be when the time comes. The first step was to find open houses that had elevators. A couple of Sundays ago, my friends, Marion Arkin and Joe Thomas, and I picked out five houses in Arlington and the District. All the houses were grand.

One house looked like something out of 17th century France. The elevator was covered with a mural of the French chateau Chenonceau. Another house had five levels that were all served by an elevator.

After spending the day riding around and marveling at the lavish staging of the houses, I have to admit I didn't really learn anything about elevators. But it was a great way to spend the day with friends.

To learn what I needed to know, I found Area Access, a place in Manassas. The showroom had scooters, stair lifts and all sorts of practical solutions to mobility problems. Lori Schwier, their “mobility consultant” met me and showed me various elevators and explained what choices I have.

The first variable is how many levels need service. I will have a basement, a main floor and a bedroom floor. Some of the simplest box-like lifts can serve only two levels. Others can serve very tall buildings.  The next variable is the drive system that operates the elevator. There are “winding drum” elevators that have a cable that goes around a spool like a fishing reel. Others, “in line geared” or “traction,” use a weight counterbalance that drops as the cab rises. A third kind uses hydraulic pressure to lift and lower the cab. The hydraulic type is about $1,000 more than the others, requires a small machine room and needs more frequent maintenance to replenish the fluid. It is less energy efficient but much quieter. 

The next thing to decide is the type of inner door. There are “scissors” doors and “accordion” doors. Because scissors can pinch a finger, these doors are only manually operated. Accordion doors can be automatic or manual.

The outer door is always locked unless the elevator is ready to get into or out of. This keeps people from falling into the shaft by mistake or walking into the shaft while the cab is lowering. The thought of these accidents is horrifying. Some automatically open and others are manual.  Automatic doors seem more handy for people in wheelchairs.

I explained to Lori that there might be times I would want to get into the shaft while the cab was somewhere else. It seems very possible that a raccoon would get in there or the roof would leak and water would start pouring into the shaft and need to be mopped up. Something is bound to happen that will require occasional access. Lori said that access would be possible with a little hidden key in the outer door. 

All elevators I saw at Area Access can accommodate an average wheelchair, but the smallest ones wouldn’t be spacious enough to turn around or to exit at right angles. There are cabs that are quite large, if I want to pay extra.

It is possible to have an elevator with exits in three directions, but these are much more expensive. I will need an exit only on the south side for all three levels.

Other variables are cosmetic — the finishes on the interior and the metal that houses the controls. I’ll get the simplest and cheapest finish and paint it a pretty color or maybe paint a mural of Chenonceau, if I feel like it.

One worry that plagued me was safety. In all the elevators that Joe, Marion and I saw on our outing, there was a telephone. Lori told me that a telephone is absolutely mandatory in Virginia. These can be land lines with the same phone number as the rest of the house, or they can have a different number if you’re stuck and know someone else is home. But, just in case, they all have emergency buttons, too. I guess these stop the elevator or maybe ring an alarm. 

In case of a power outage, the elevators I looked at all have a battery backup that is kept charged at all times. This is very consoling.

I am just now worrying about what happens if the house is struck by lightning while I’m in the elevator. Could I get electrocuted? Lori didn’t know the answer, but she didn’t think this was a major likelihood. 

Lori also explained that each state sets standards for elevators. Some elevators might be legal in one state and illegal in another. The company that installs the elevator has to apply for a separate and independent permit and the house is subject to an inspection after it is installed. 

How much are these elevators?  For what I need, the lowest end model will cost about $20,000, assuming all the framing and wiring are in place. With fancy woodwork and with a hydraulic drive system, we’re talking more like $25,000. Not small change. But worth the investment for the goal of aging in place.

After all this I started to feel lonely. Do I really want to age in place with no one else to share my elevator with?  I know people who enjoy living in those nice assisted living places. There is always some social life. And they have elevators, too. 

Read more about Mary’s renovation

Mary McCutcheon is a retired professor of anthropology at George Mason University. This is her story of transforming her house from something she doesn’t want into something she does.

By Mary McCutcheon  |  05:30 AM ET, 06/11/2012

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