How to Improve Accessibility in Your Home

By Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP

COVER PHOTO from the Aging in Place Guide for Building Owners.

The Aging in Place Guide for Building Owners offers a wide range of recommendations for renovations and improvements that improve the quality of life for all residents, especially targeting multi-family urban buildings. “Aging in place” describes individuals who continue to live in their homes as they age, rather than relocating. Research suggests that a majority, up to 90 percent, of older people prefer to age in place. Ninety-six percent of older New Yorkers are currently aging in place, and half of older adults in New York live alone.

Access to any space, from a private kitchen or bath, to common areas such as lobbies and hallways, is the aspect addressed here.

Some recommendations address social isolation, which is common among seniors and can be detrimental to both physical and mental health. Making improvements to building entrances, common areas, and dwelling access can address isolation by helping to increase tenants’ interactions with neighbors, family, and friends.

Of course, individuals may have varying disabilities, at different times, from other individuals. Detailed dimensions are contained in the definitions of various elements of our building codes.

At the front entrance to a building, stairs are obstacles that can be avoided with ramps, or perhaps by providing another entry that avoids steps. Doors must be typically 36 inches wide to accommodate wheelchairs or the mobility impaired, with at least 18” clear floor next to the latch side.

Ease of navigating requires that the space between the public entrance and the private spaces must be clear of obstacles and easy for finding direction, with obviously-located adequately-lit directories or wayfinding signs.

Once inside the apartment’s preferably 36” wide private entry door, with signs in braille if needed, the path should be clearly understood and easily negotiable, avoiding complicated circulation patterns if possible. Access to other spaces must be clear and intuitive, keeping in mind the experience of an environment at eye level, one’s pace of walking, views, and what is familiar. Providing wayfinding markers, such as soft furniture at corner turns, could also help. To make access to rooms at doorways easier, replace any round doorknob with lever handles; lever attachments to round doorknobs are also available, and renters could take the attachments with them if they move.

Slip and trip avoidance is a major part of a safe environment. Appropriate selections of flooring finishes and transaction surfaces is paramount. Eliminate slippery floors by refinishing or resurfacing with a non-slip surface. Any loose rug, doormat, or carpet is a trip hazard, and should be removed. Fixed carpeting or rugs may be used, as long as the transition from one surface to another doesn’t expose an edge over a quarter inch high; thin metal transition strips can be tacked at edges. A contrast in color may also help avoid trips at transitions. Some wood floors may have wood thresholds over a quarter inch high, and should also be eliminated.

New York City’s Inclusive Design Guidelines, which the city’s Department of Design and Construction publishes in collaboration with the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access at the State University of New York (SUNY) Buffalo, is an available reference.

A full PDF of the universal design guidelines can be found at: The Aging in Place Guide for Building Owners is available online at

Brian J. Pape, LEED-AP “Green” certified, is a citizen architect in private practice, serving on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board Landmarks Committee and Quality of Life Committee (speaking solely in a personal, not an official capacity), co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, a member of AIANY Historic Buildings and Housing Committees, and a journalist specializing in architecture subjects.

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