How Visitable is Your Home?

As it stands, most homes around the world present challenges for both visitors and owners of the home when it comes to ease of entry and overall safety.  We often find ourselves overlooking this fact without thinking and make the job of watching where we step or exerting the extra effort our own.  With many of the homes we live in what was originally considered architecturally desirable at the time of planning and design is not necessarily the most functional design option.  Architects and Registered Interior Designers are becoming increasingly cognizant of this fact, and are taking this thinking into account more and more especially now as the population ages around the world.

While the concept of home and building visitability is quite relevant for the aging population, it has the ability to reach much further reach than that.  Aging in place is not just a term relating to older age, because the aging process over a lifespan really begins at birth and continues from there.  While a child living in their parents’ home may not have much say in where they live or how the home is furnished, they do deserve equal access and the same level of comfort and convenience as anyone else.  In addition, aging in place should address people without immediate needs, people with progressive conditions, and people with traumatic change needs such as an accident or injury.

Scroll for features that improve a home’s visitability:

  • One of the biggest challenges in terms of surfaces is making sure that they are continuous. The driveway should be a continuous hard surface with the appropriate amount of slope. This makes the onloading and offloading of people and items much easier. If people had to step out of the vehicle onto sand, grass, snow or mud, it would present a challenge for footing.

When we think of visitability we often think of a home having an accommodating living room to allow for guests with varying abilities.  However, true visitability encompasses the journey from the curb or the street to the front door of the home (the approach), from the front door throughout the home to the rear door or secondary exit (the inside), and from the rear door to the backyard and edge of the property line (the outback).  Visitability includes the entire experience of using and moving around in a space.

So what’s the biggest challenge for a home’s visitability?  Before even thinking about how the home will function for visitors within, we have to think about how it serves them from the outside.  Can guests and homeowners make the trip with ease from the sidewalk or from a parked car in a driveway to the front door?  The reality is that most walkways, driveways, lawns or gardens offer challenges in allowing visitors to even get to the front door.  Visitability is not just limited to the inside of the home, and without a safe and effective exterior approach getting to the inside of the dwelling could not occur.  A person has to be able to make it to the front door if a visit is to take place at all.

Still the question remains, how do we address existing homes that due to their original planning continue to present daily challenges to their users?  This is where builders, contractors, architects and interior designers can be of great value.  They must figure out a way to create a flow that allows people and their guests to transition easily and unrestricted from the outside of the home to the inside.  As professionals we consider all of the basic universal design principles we’re aware of and utilize some creativity as well.  One strategy that can be used is to think of design from our own past experiences, and from the perspective of potential experiences any of us could have as people.  We know that we are all susceptible to any kind of injury that could happen, and it doesn’t have to be a serious one.  Many people are pet owners for example, and as such a hazard could present itself at any time even while taking a dog for a walk.  If a person were out with their dog for recreation and perhaps threw a frisbee to the dog and while running unintentionally twisted an ankle, that would have an immediate impact on that person’s mobility for at least a couple of days if not longer.  A vehicle related accident or slipping on stairs are other examples of things could happen that don’t present life changing or long term consequences but will still affect our mobility even if briefly.

When we have these things happen to us it changes our perception of how we use spaces, and we begin to notice situations where it’s not so easy to get into the house anymore, to walk up the front sidewalk or walk up a set of steps.  Our abilities change over time as well.  In our 20’s or 30’s we’re able to easily bound up a set of steps not holding the railing or even giving it much thought.  As we get to 50, 60, and 70 these kinds of physical activities can become slightly more difficult.  At these ages falling also results in a more painful or serious outcome and being aware of this we begin to take a bit more time getting around.  As hearing and vision changes a person’s mobility is also impacted.  These are all things to take into consideration in visitability design as we want to offer the best opportunity for everyone to come to our home.

Consider all of the different scenarios where someone might visit your home and have to arrive at your door:

  • For a dinner or celebration including a birthday, anniversary or retirement
  • For a summertime get together including a pool party or bbq
  • On an evening to play cards, shoot pool, or watch a game on TV
  • Meeting for a book club or discussion group
  • A casual visit to chat, sit and visit, or to check on someone with an illness or injury
  • To provide advice or help with a project
  • A housekeeper, caregiver, or regular maintenance
  • Someone visiting from out of town for a few days staying overnight
  • Seasonally for Halloween or holiday carolers who will be travelling at night in the dark
  • Emergency response people carrying equipment that would want safe and fast access to your home
  • Mail or post delivery person

There are numerous instances where visitors would want to come to the home and all of these examples present good reason to provide a safe and pleasant experience for them.  The challenge is that most existing homes are not visitable, and there may be certain features to the exterior entry of homes that present difficulty for alteration.  This is usually due to their architecture as they may have a number of steps or be situated very close to the street which would present an added challenge.  While architectural and budgetary constraints will mean we cannot do everything or address every element to the home, within the realm of possibility we can make whatever changes possible to create the best level of safety we can within our clients homes.

What are some of the changes that can be made to ensure the exterior of the home is as visitable as possible?

One of the biggest challenges in terms of surfaces is making sure that they are continuous.  The driveway should be a continuous hard surface with the appropriate amount of slope.  This makes the onloading and offloading of people and items much easier.  If people had to step out of the vehicle onto sand, grass, snow or mud, it would present a challenge for footing.

A walkway coming from the street right up to the front door, or from the driveway to the front door should be a continuous hard surface without breaks or rivets.  It should be continuously flat without steps and should have the appropriate slope.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) recommends a 1:12 slope at minimum but since this can still present a strenuous climb, extending that further to a slope of 1:20 would be ideal.  One feature that improves the look of a pathway and increases safety is to provide lighting along the sides.  Though stepping stones may offer aesthetic value they are not advisable due to gaps in their spacing, and they can be difficult to maneuver depending on the natural gait in the step of the person crossing them.

Grass and weeds also along the edges of walkways should be eliminated.  Proper drainage of a quarter inch per foot rise to run should be achieved.  If not water could begin to pool and with algae build up in milder weather it could make surfaces slippery.  Fallen leaves and foliage in autumn should be raked and maintained as these can also become quite slippery when wet and present hazardous conditions.  Drainage pipes should always extend well beyond the walkways and driveways considering seasonal shifts where temperatures can cause ice to form.

Ideally there would be no steps up to the front door of the home, but if unavoidable there should be as few steps as possible and the entire construction should be a smooth flat surface.  A railing should be provided at inclines due to steps to provide safety and support.  Step treads and risers should always be uniform in length with little variance to provide continuity of motion, otherwise stairs become tiring to navigate.  A covering over the door itself is an important feature that serves visitors as they stand and wait to be welcomed, especially in rainy or snowy conditions, and adequate lighting should certainly be provided if the visit is taking place at night.  An added feature that becomes very helpful for visitors bringing anything with them is an entry or welcome station/shelf.  This provides a surface for a person to set something heavy or awkward down if circumstances call for it.

Visitability really begins from the sidewalk and exterior of the home.  Getting inside the home and moving around doesn’t present nearly as many challenges as there are just getting to the front door of most homes.  If a visitor can’t get up the entry sidewalk or can’t get up the driveway, can’t navigate the connecting sidewalk or if there are steps that prevent them from getting to the landing, then the visit itself could not take place.  Visitability facilitates access, safety, and enjoyment for all types of dwellings and is especially relevant for fall prevention.  Many elements that were desired architectural at the time of the buildings construction are not the most functional nor are they a suitable solution for access. Few homes are completely visitable which means almost all homes have a need for improvements of some kind.  We may not be able to accomplish everything in making a home totally visitable, but any improvements we are able to make will make a world of difference to many of the family, friends, neighbors and others that visit the home.  All safety improvements serve a dual purpose in assisting the people that live in the home as well as their respective guests.

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