Designing for my old age means having to figure out what my most probable disabilities are going to be. 

Right now I have some achy joints, but still get up and down stairs and don't think twice about opening a door or climbing on a ladder to reach something on a high shelf. If I design my house for the possibility that I will one day require a wheelchair to get around, there are a lot of plans I'll have to make now. If I design for the greater probability that I'll need a walker or require some help with balance problems, there are fewer adjustments I have to make.    

I recently attended a meeting at the Walter Reed Community Center in Arlington on “Universal Design,” a term that applies to houses and businesses that are accessible. Other terms you might hear are “Easy Living”  (which sounds good to me) or “Smart Choice Homes” or “Livable Home.” Whatever you call it, the concept is to make it possible to live independently, safely and comfortably for as long as possible.   

Bill Fuller is a community housing officer for the Virginia Housing Development Authority in Richmond. (Photo by Mary McCutcheon)

This was impressive, but there were many in the audience who were just as interested in his service dog, Canada, who demonstrated how he can pick up anything that drops on the floor.  Besides Bill’s personal experience, he has a wealth of connections to organizations, both charitable and governmental, where assistance can be found.  He can steer people to design options that will make their lives much easier. 

I have decided to construct my new house keeping in mind I'll need at least a walker at some point.  I am not going to put in lowered countertops with open areas underneath for wheelchair accessibility because this would be inconvenient for me now.  Besides counters in kitchens can be changed later on.  The same cannot be said for entryways, spaces adaptable to elevator installation and accessible bathrooms. 

I've already written about my elevator plans.  Nothing has changed since then.  I'll have a shaft that can be used as three handy closets. At a later date, I can then install an elevator.  So far so good. 

Steps at Mary McCutcheon's house (Photo by Mary McCutcheon)

I'm lucky that my house has only a gently sloping grade toward the backside so the front walk can be a very gradual incline that I can achieve with some minor earthworks at the foundation.  The front door will be about 40 feet from the street and the elevation from grade at the front door is likely to be about 18 inches. 

At this rate of grade (18 inches up for 480 inches length or a grade of 3.75 percent) getting into my home will be very easy to navigate with a walker or a wheelchair.  Bill Fuller pointed out that a grade of anything less than 8.33 percent (or an inch up for every foot in length) is acceptable, but Arlington County advises a more gradual slope of 1:20 (or 5 percent). 

He showed some horrifying pictures of ramps and driveways that looked more like amusement park rides than entrances.  He also joked about people who go to great lengths to design a nice ramp and then put an insurmountable threshold at the front door.  Another common error is to build a nice ramp that ends at the front door without planning for a level platform from which a person can safely open the front door without rolling or slipping backward.  This platform should ideally be four feet by four feet. 

Some people, especially in parts of Arlington, have a topographic disadvantage: It is impossible to alter their houses to permit an accessible front door.  Not only do people have to struggle up and down these steps, the garbage cans have to take up permanent residency at street level. Carrying out the garbage in its stinky leaky bags during a blizzard must be a dreadful job for people in these houses. I have made up my mind to have a back deck (also with no step), which will feed onto a stepless walkway to the street. 

Wherever a door swings toward the person, there has to be an extension of the walk or hall that allows the person to open the door without being right in its radius.  These are things I had not thought about at all.  Doors should all be at least 32 inches wide and hallways and passageways should be at least 36 inches wide. Someone in the audience asked Bill about pocket doors and folding doors. The concept for the pocket door is excellent, but the handles and other hardware are difficult to hold.   

Since I'm planning to design a conventional kitchen for my present level of ability, the kitchen design ideas that Bill offered were less relevant to my needs.  Still, it was worth noting that the kitchen is the place where disabled people are most frustrated.  No matter what my abilities, I took to heart his endorsement of gliding shelves. They are now so well designed and affordable, why not have them for all shelves? 

Bathrooms designed for people with disabilities require a space to maneuver that should be 4 feet by 4 feet in front of the toilet as well as the sink.  It is not necessary to have a bathroom the size of Emperor Caracalla’s.  A total space of 5 feet by 7 feet is large enough.  There should be grab bars on all walls and a roll-in shower is a must.  As Bill Fuller said,  “The only way to avoid needing a roll-in shower is by dying young. I’ll still have a conventional bathtub in one bathroom because, as long as I can, I'd like to soak now and then.” 

Something that annoys everyone is shower control knobs positioned directly underneath the shower head.  Whether you want to or not, you'll get your hair wet as you turn the water on or off or just want to adjust the temperature.  For a split second or two, no matter how hot to set the temperature, the water comes out icy cold.  It is easy enough to put the knobs on a different wall and prevent this inconvenience.    

Someone in the audience asked about bathtubs with doors.  Fuller chuckled as he responded, “It seems like such a good idea until you actually use it.” Here's what happens: You enter the tub and close the door before turning on the spigot.  As the tub slowly fills, you sit there naked and shivering.  You take your bath and as the water gets tepid, you pull out the plug and wait until the tub drains.  You sit, coated with soap scum, as you again wait naked and shivering.  If the drain is clogged, it may take even longer.  But you dare not open the door until the water is all gone.  These tubs are being touted as the solution to many problems.  Misguided people are spending good money on them.  Not me. 

There are lots of resources available for adapting your home.  Bill Fuller has a Web site, His work Web site is  The Easy Living Web site has good ideas.   ENDependence of Northern Virginia in Arlington promotes independent living and services for people with many disabilities.  There is so much to learn.   

As inspiring as the talk was, the icing on the cake was the news that Virginia gives a tax credit for new homes or renovated homes that include at least three features from the list of universal design standards.  These include zero-step entrances, zero-step walkways, wide doors and hallways, accessible light switches and thermostats, accessible bathrooms and accessible kitchens. A ground floor bedroom or an elevator are qualifiers, too. This is an attractive incentive and, if you are a Virginian, you can learn more about it from


Read more about Mary’s renovation saga


 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.