Visitable housing offers more than accessibility for disabled individuals; it could be the future of single family homes in an increasingly aged society. So why isn’t it catching on?
Carla Berezowski looks at many of Calgary’s new neighbourhoods from the last decade and sees missed opportunities.
A specialist in barrier-free design, the consultant works mostly with aging Calgarians, retrofitting their homes to accommodate mobility needs.
“People are usually reacting to a situation like, ‘My mom fell’ and they want to make their house accessible to accommodate aging parents,” said Berezowski, owner of Aging in Place Calgary.
And judging by the way detached homes continue to be constructed in the city, she said business is likely to grow as society grays and people choose to remain independent instead of moving to assisted-living facilities.
“I think we’re stuck in the past with old ways of building,” she said.
Despite advances in the accessibility of public spaces in recent years, new homebuilding has yet to catch up – and, so far, most people don’t see that as problematic, said Berezowski.
But they’re likely to soon enough. According to Statistics Canada, one in seven Canadians currently has a disability. One-third of Canadians ages 64 to 75 have a disability, and more than half 75 and older are disabled.
In Calgary, the need for visitable dwellings could soon number in the tens of thousands, said Mark Stewart, an Alberta-based knowledge transfer consultant for Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., who works with housing industry officials to foster more barrier-free housing.
The City of Calgary expects one in five Calgarians will be over 65 by 2036.
“As the population ages and the incidence of people living with mobility issues increases, visitable housing will become an important means of providing accessibility in housing,” he said.
While barrier-free home design can involve many modifications — from lower countertops and cabinetry to in-home elevators – visitable housing involves three main elements, said Alberta-based architect Ron Wickman, who specializes in universal design.
First conceived of in the U.S. by advocate Eleanor Smith, a visitable house must feature a no-step entrance, doors wide enough for wheelchairs and a main-floor bathroom, again large enough for a wheelchair.
While many builders have already adopted wider doorways, and most homes have at least a half bathroom on the main floor, no-step access has proven a difficult construction barrier to overcome.
“The no-step entrance is very easy to build, but it’s not commonplace, and that’s been one of the problems with getting visitability traits to be more common in the housing construction industry,” said Wickman.
Higher cost is an issue, initially. But Wickman said he has worked with builders who have found with each visitable home they construct, cost decreases as familiarity with building techniques improves.
Wickman said the main impediment is the misconception that universal design traits — such as a no-step entry — are undesirable. He said that is manifested in the architectural guidelines of many new developments in the city that require three-step front entries.
But visitable homes do sell, argues Stewart. He pointed to overwhelming interest in a newly built community in Winnipeg called Bridgewater that was mandated by the Manitoba government to have a minimum number of single-family dwellings with visitable design.
“It was actually the fastest-selling neighbourhood in Winnipeg,” said Steward.
A follow-up survey revealed residents living in traditional homes indicated they would now prefer a visitable home “because of the convenience of having a level entry,” he added.
In Calgary, some builders have dabbled in visitable home design. Stepper Homes received an Access Recognition Award from the City of Calgary in 2012 for its work in the area.
Sierra West was another local builder that specialized in barrier-free construction. The company recently announced it was closing its doors because revenues from barrier-free builds could not offset losses in its larger arm, traditional home building, caused by the recent economic downturn.
Universal access design only accounted “for a small portion of business,” said owner Todd Frerich.
City of Calgary planning and development supervisor Ulrik Seward noted the provincial building code currently mandates multi-family residences feature elements of barrier-free design. Yet it doesn’t require single-family homes to comply with barrier-free design unless those homes are being built for social programs.”
Like others familiar with the issue, Seward said the need for visitable housing will only grow, but it will take a multi-pronged effort to meet it.
“Certainly, people are going to have to demand builders to start doing this, and regulations have to change,” he said. “Government, the public and industry have to work together.”