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How to design and build a wheelchair accessible home in Australia

We highlight the importance of designing an adaptable forever home that’s easy for people of all abilities to use as needs change.

In one of our previous articles, we talked about the unmissable features of your forever home ⸺ the place where you establish your family and where you can age gracefully.

If building your forever home is your plan, then your designer must follow universal design principles. It must be planned not only for you and your family’s current needs, but for future conditions as well. It must be designed in such a way that it can be used by the widest range of human abilities possible. Designing a home like this, we create a space that not only works for an able-bodied person but for those who have disabilities and special needs.

Here, our focus is on creating house plans for people in wheelchairs and the design features to adapt. This is one of the most discussed issues in the architecture industry because it brings about massive positive changes in the lives of the homeowners. We hope that you will consider this when you decide to renovate or build a new home.

Desirable features of a wheelchair accessible home

Pathway to the entrance

  • Plan 1100mm wide (minimum) level, step-free, and uninterrupted path leading to the front door.
  • Create a gently sloping wheelchair-accessible step ramp with handrails. Ideally 1100mm wide and angle of 166°.
  • Allocate a 1350mm x 1350mm level landing area beside the door. You need plenty of turning space for the wheelchair.

Entry

  • Design a flush entryway with continuous, level flooring.
  • Ensure the doorway measures at least 850mm wide.
  • Install wide swinging or sliding doors. 
  • Choose a lever door handle over the regular doorknob. Lever handles are easier to grab and use.
  • Install the door hardware between 900mm-1100mm above the finished floor level.

Bathrooms

  • Build at least one accessible bathroom on the first floor of your house
  • Use a swinging door that opens 90° uninterruptedly, with a clear width of 850mm.
  • Allocate a 1200mm x 1200mm clear space inside the bathroom for the wheelchair’s turning space
  • Install the bathroom door hardware between 900mm-1100mm above the finished flooring.
  • Design a 900mm x 900mm hobless shower recess. 
  • Make a built-in seat in the shower. 
  • Reinforce walls of the toilet and shower for the installation of grab rails.
  • Lay non-slip tiles and get rid of all tripping hazards to avoid bathroom accidents.
  • Bathroom vanity/hand basin to be accessible in seated or standing position, ideally between 700-1000mm. 
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Image credit: Victoria Plum

Carport, garage, and parking provisions

  • Keep the parking spaces relatively larger than usual. Minimum dimensions of at least 3200mm wide and 5400mm long. 
  • Allot a 2500mm vertical clearance over the parking space for better protection against the weather.
  • Make sure the floor is even, firm, and slip-resistant.

Interior doorways and hallways 

  • Plan wide internal doorways measuring at least 850mm wide.
  • Allocate at least 1200mm width for the hallways to facilitate comfortable and unimpeded movement between spaces.

Staircase 

  • Install continuous handrails on the stairways, widen the steps, and reduce the height of the risers to prevent accidents and avoid injury.
  • Extend the hand rails beyond the first and last steps.
  • Create a wide staircase, measuring at least 1000mm
  • Keep the stairway well-lit
  • Make sure the steps are slip resistant
  • Position it next to a load bearing wall
  • When needed, incorporate a staircase lift or an actual elevator in your plans.

Kitchen 

  • Allot 1200mm clearance in front of fixed benches, islands, and appliances (e.g. refrigerator, oven, dishwasher, etc.).
  • Use slip-resistant flooring
  • Lay the flooring material under the lower cabinetry. This way, the floors will still be seamless even when you remove the cabinets (for future renovations).
  • Consider movable kitchen islands with wheels, so you can modify the kitchen space when needed.
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Image credit: BLANCO

Laundry 

  • Allot 1200mm clearance in front of fixed benches, the washer, and dryer.
  • Lay skid-proof and non-slip flooring.
  • Opt for smart washers and dryers, and easy to use appliances
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Bedroom

  • Ground floor bedroom should be at least 10m3  with one wall measuring 3m.
  • Leave at least 1000mm clearance beside the bed.
  • Have a two-way switch, one at the bedroom door entrance and one at the bedside.
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Hardware for drawers and cabinets

  • Build storage with more drawers instead of cabinets
  • Use easy to grab handles

Family room / living area 

  • Create an open floor plan living room with no doors or corridors
  • Provide a clear wheelchair turnaround space measuring 2250mm 
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Image credit: Design Sponge

Power outlets and switches

  • Install light switches between 900mm to 1100mm above the finished floors
  • Have a two way switch so one can easily light up rooms and turn off the lights
  • Install power points at 300mm to 500mm above the finished floors
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Image credit: Lifemark® Design Standards

Windows and windowsills

  • Opt for glass-front doors or place a side light or a vertical glass window beside the front and back doors so you can see who’s on the other side before opening it.
  • Use safety glass to prevent break-ins.
  • Make sure that the windows’ operating height and sills allow easy viewing of the outdoor space from either a seated or standing position. Ideally 1000mm above the finished floors.
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General things to consider

  • When planning a home where you can age in place, stick to a single storey home as much as possible. This way, you can avoid building stairs ⸺ the number one concern of people in wheelchairs. 
  • If you are renovating a double-storey home, consider having at least one bedroom on your ground floor
  • All floors must have an easily accessible bathroom.
  • If you are building on a huge lot in a rural area, consider building an acreage home. This kind of residential structure is long and wide; you can fit all the rooms and spaces you need in one floor

Universal design principles as part of the National Construction Code

Last 30 April 2021, the Building Ministers mandated the Silver Level of the Livable Housing Design as the new standard for all new housing in the National Construction Code (NCC).

The Gold Level is also included in the NCC, meaning states and territories can decide to upgrade voluntarily.

Homeowners can also go for the Platinum Level, the highest level of accessibility and livability.

The Livable Housing Design Guidelines is the country’s guidelines for livable housing agreed in partnership between community, consumer groups, government and industry. 

This is a huge win for all Australians, especially now when more and more families are building multigenerational households, and they’re choosing to take care of their senior, injured, and disabled family members at home.

You can also incorporate a few Lifemark® Design Standards on your new home design. 

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