Accessibility and Visitability: 2 New Homes on Wilt Street

By Troy H.

We’re about to break ground on the last two homes in the North Philadelphia Complete Blocks Project!  Come February we’ll be pouring the foundations and beginning to frame.  But before we do so, we want to share a little more about how we’re making these homes accessible to all, paying special attention to wheelchair-friendly design.

The basic floor plan of these homes is the same as the recently completed 1900 Morse Street project (see photos from the home dedication here).  But instead of a single, detached home, the two houses on Wilt Street will be ‘semi-detached’—or, in Philadelphia-speak, a twin.  Here’s the floor plan—you can see how the two homes share a party wall in the middle (on either side of the two staircases), and how they’re essentially mirror images of each other:

1905 - 13 Wilt St. Plans

They aren’t identical, but they’re still a very special set of twins.  You’ll see that the one on the left has an added bedroom, bathroom and entrance on the first floor.  Why?  We’re designing it to be “accessible,” which means that it will be fully livable for a member of the family that has mobility issues.  You’ve probably heard about ADA (the Americans with Disabilities Act) and you might be aware of the guidelines for residential accessibility.  But if you’re new to the game, here are a few key elements of our design on this house.

  1. Zero-Step Entrance – A ramp leading up to the entrance that allows a wheelchair to enter/exit the homes easily.
  2. Accessible Bathroom – The bathroom features an accessible toilet, sink, and options for an accessible or roll-in tub/shower (depending on the needs of the family).  The bathroom also includes at least a 5’ turning radius for wheelchair users.
  3. Accessible Bedroom –Located on the first floor, and designed to allow for a turning radius for wheelchairs and accessibility to the closet.
  4. Accessible Kitchen – The final design will be based on the needs of the family—including an accessible cooktop, oven, and sink.
  5. First Floor Laundry – Typically laundry machines are in the basement or on the second floor; here, they’re located on the first floor.

The second house will be like many of Habitat’s other new-construction homes:  it’s a three-bedroom, 1.5 bath, 1200 sq. ft. home.  But it’s part of our broader plan to build all new Habitat homes to “visitable standards.”   And what (you may be asking yourself) is the difference between ‘accessible’ and ‘visitable’?  Lucky for you, I’m doing my graduate research thesis on visitability!  This is a set of guidelines and design principles for single-family homes that promote basic accessibility, generally focusing on disabled individuals who visit (but don’t live in) the home.  Visitability is defined by three basic accessibility elements:

  1. One zero-step entrance
  2. Wide doorways and hallways
  3. A half-bath on the first floor, with floor clearance to accommodate a wheelchair

Wide doorways and hallways on the first floor are simple to integrate into the design, but the half-bath can sometimes be a challenge.  A typical Philadelphia rowhome is between 14’ and 18’ wide, which doesn’t leave much room for a bathroom after the stairs, living room, dining area, and kitchen are in place.  But our architects have identified a great location for the half bath in our homes—it’s in line with the staircase, which is a space that would typically just be part of the kitchen.  We’re finding creative ways to make sure that those with mobility issues can be comfortable in and fully part of the home.

Visitability is a forward-looking concept, and it’s becoming the standard—it’s actually required for all new-construction, single-family homes that receive City or Federal subsidies.  In our houses on Wilt Street, there will be a path from the sidewalk to the rear of the house, where a ramp rises to create the zero-step entrance.  We can achieve visitability in other ways as well:  for example, by designing street-level entrances, or building a ramp in front of the home to create a zero-step entrance.  Our designs demonstrate how builders can take individual site layouts into account, while still ensuring visitability for those with mobility issues.

But why does Habitat spend extra time integrating ADA-approved features into these homes?  And why is it so important that affordable housing be accessible?  In a densely-populated city like Philadelphia, most houses are designed to fill the entire square-footage of their property (and thus maximize the amount of indoor space).  This often means that homes are far from accessible for those with mobility issues.  Many Philadelphia rowhomes have a set of steep stairs leading up to the front door, and no easy access to the back door.  The first floor typically lacks a bathroom, and the layout maximizes the volume of rooms but makes hallways too narrow for a wheelchair to pass through comfortably.  This makes it nearly impossible for someone in a wheelchair to enter the home, let alone navigate the first-floor space from one room to another or use the bathroom.

ADA-friendly design is even more critical for a low-income family who may already be struggling to make ends meet, particularly if there is a family member with mobility issues.  Working members of the family often take on extra jobs or work hours to earn enough money to care for their family.  It can be hard to balance this if a parent, spouse or child needs extra help or attention in order to move around the house—particularly if the living space lacks accessible features.

Living in a house with ADA-approved features allows mobility-impaired members of the family to be significantly more independent.  Instead of relying on someone else to help them get from one room to another, or to visit the bathroom, they’re more free to do so on their own.  By integrating these features into our homes, Habitat Philadelphia ensures that all members of the family—and all visitors—can enjoy a high quality of life.

For further information about ADA standards, accessibility, and visitability, take a look at the resources below:

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About Habitat Philadelphia

Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia is an independently chartered affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI), the largest nonprofit homebuilder worldwide. Locally, Habitat Philadelphia is on a mission to transform lives and our city by building and repairing quality homes in partnership with families in need, and uniting all Philadelphians around the cause of affordable housing. Our Vision is a city where all Philadelphians live in safe, affordable homes.
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