Adam Kisielewski loves walking around his brand-new Frederick, Md., home, partly because of its open floor plan, custom-built cabinetry and thick crown molding, but mostly just because he can.
The former Marine sergeant lost his left arm at the shoulder and his right leg below the knee on Aug. 21, 2005, when a 97-pound artillery round exploded as he and his fellow servicemen opened a door to a school outside Fallujah, Iraq. After undergoing more surgeries than he can count, the 28-year-old moves easily with a prosthetic leg. To rest it, he uses a wheelchair.
But that made navigating his last house, a three-story place in Thurmont, Md., difficult. “It was a beautiful house, but it made the use of a wheelchair pretty much impossible,” says Kisielewski, the vice president of Operation Second Chance, which supports veterans and their families while they recover in military hospitals. “I had to wear my prosthetic leg 18 hours a day, pretty much whenever I was awake. It didn’t give my body a chance to recover at the end of the day.”
Many single-family homes present navigational problems for people with disabilities, especially if they’re multilevel and have narrow doorways, says Greg Olavarria, owner of Bethesda-based Get a Grip (240-372-0770), a contracting company that specializes in helping people with physical challenges move safely in their homes. Doorways are typically 24 to 28 inches wide, he says. “Unfortunately, when you [have] a 24-inch door, once you get the doorjamb in there and you have a door hung, you end up with a 22-inch opening, and a lot of wheelchairs and walkers are much wider than that.”
Sometimes walls need to be cut to enlarge doorways, but easier fixes are also possible, such as removing stripping, making a door swing in the opposite direction or replacing hinges with offset ones that set the door back past the jamb, buying 1½ to 2 inches, he says.
Bathrooms also top the list of areas that need adjustment, says Vince Butler, president of Butler Brothers Corp. (703-878-3300) in Clifton, Va., and a developer of the National Association of Home Builders’ Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist program, which trains builders on universal design. Common challenges include climbing over tubs, accessing sinks and standing in showers.
The fixes can “be something as inexpensive as a few hundred dollars for grab bars or a shower seat or handheld shower or lever handles — things that would make fixtures and appliances and hardware within a house more easy to use,” Butler says. For a total renovation — including installing a roll-in shower, a roll-under sink and toilet transfer benches, which enable users to slide from a wheel chair to the toilet — costs may rise to as much as $50,000.
Stairways are another problem. When Judi Hasson’s multiple sclerosis made walking up the steps to her McLean, Va., home too difficult, she hired Olavarria to remove them by raising the sidewalk to be level with the threshold. And when she could no longer climb the steps to the main floor of her split-level house, she hired Manassas, Va.-based mobility specialists Area Access (Areaaccess.com) to install a stair climber, a motorized chair on a track. “The stair lift made my life easier and safer,” Hasson says.
The ultimate stairway fix is an elevator. “It’s the easiest way to take a multistory house … and make it live like a one-story house,” Butler says. His company charges between $25,000 and $70,000 for the equipment and installation; prices vary depending on how much work is needed to make room for the shaft, he says. “When you compare the cost of it with the cost of moving and all the associated costs that go on with that … it usually becomes something worth considering, and it adds value to the house.”
Rather than revamping his home, Kisielewski applied last year for a new one through Homes for Our Troops, a nonprofit group that provides accessible housing to severely injured veterans for free. Bethesda-based Case Design/Remodeling Inc. (800-513-2250) handled the general contracting work; other local companies donated materials and time.
The result is a one-level hilltop home with four bedrooms and 2,616 square feet of living space that has changed life for Kisielewski; his wife, Carrie; and their 1-year-old, Evan, since they moved in in July. It features an automated front door opener, 36-inch-wide doorways, pull-down shelving in the kitchen, a motion-sensor-rigged toilet seat that lifts automatically, and toe kicks (the space for your feet under a cabinet) twice the height of the standard 4.5 inches to accommodate Kisielewski’s foot in a wheelchair.
“One issue was just enjoyment of home and what kind of home they liked, but another thing it had to meet was accessibility, as part of that open design is for him to get around, not just today but also in 30 years,” says Bruce Case, the president of Case Design. “Layered on top of that are the unique things like the automatic door openers, like the motion-sensor toilet.”
With accessibility requirements met, enjoyment is apparent. Kisielewski glances out the window of his home office at horses running in the field nearby and says, “I never in a million years thought I’d have something like this.”
The Fair Housing Act requires that multi-family dwellings meet the disability-friendly specifications of universal design, but no such law exists for single-family homes. Homeowners with special needs often make renovations by themselves. Vince Butler, a developer of the National Association of Home Builders’ Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist program, shares these tips to ensure you get your money’s worth when renovating for better accessibility.
1. Hire a contractor based on a good referral from somebody you trust.
2. Be wary of listings or online databases that people can buy a spot in, Butler says, because they’re a form of advertising rather than a referral.
3. Look for affiliations and certifications such as the National Association of Home Builders’ Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist, which indicates that someone at the company has been trained in universal design techniques.
4. Check a builder’s licensing with your state or city licensing group to ensure it is up-to-date and legitimate.
5. Ask the contractor for hard proof, not just a copy, of the certificate of insurance to validate its authenticity.
6. Ask for references regarding and examples of the specific job you want to do.
7. Make sure the contractors, not you, secure the building permit. That makes them legally responsible for the work in case something goes wrong or is not up to code or inspected, and gives the county the power and information it needs to follow up with the contractor.