Let’s Go Vertical!

Stairs are probably the first thing we think of eliminating from our lives when we think about transforming our home into an environment in which we can retire.{{more}} If you are capable, going up and down the stairs as part of your daily activities can provide some positive “environmental press” and exercise. On the other hand, there is no doubt that some of us will develop muscular weakness, loss of balance, or bad eyesight, making stairs difficult to negotiate and a place ready for a bad accident.

Often I hear, “we’re looking for a one-story ranch where we won’t have stairs.” Here in the northeast, most one-story houses still have basements connected by stairs. This is not a problem if the laundry and other often used spaces are located on the main floor level. Even so, the electrical service and utilities are usually in the basement and re-setting a circuit breaker in the dark may not be something easily done.

So, plan for one level access to everything you will need to take care of to be as independent as possible. This includes the path from your car or sidewalk to the main door.

Where there is an existing condition or another planning choice is not possible, you may have to consider and elevator or lift. In an existing home you may be able to find a location where there are closets or other spaces that are stacked one above the other where an elevator shaft can be constructed. Look for spaces approximately 5 feet by 5 feet. Typically even a small elevator requires a shallow pit and footings. This may require cutting and excavating through the basement floor slab. Recently I was shown a tubular polycarbonate shaft vacuum elevator that does not require such a pit and it appeared to be ideal if your home has a two story space, like some entry halls.

Less involved than an elevator, a stair lift travels on a rail which is secured to the stair treads. The seat folds up when not in use. Keep in mind that a suitable space is needed at the landings to get on and off the lift safely. I recently discussed a proposed “in-law” apartment addition that the clients want to construct on a second story. I advised that if they wanted to keep future costs down, any new stairs to the apartment should be a single straight run. Lifts for curved or multi-landing stairs can be more than double the cost of a simple straight run. My last cost estimate for a straight run stair lift was about $6,500.

A short rise, say from grade to a porch can be accommodated with a platform lift. Again, these may require some foundation and shallow pit construction. Units are rated for exterior use, but consider what has to be done to maintain access in wet or snowy weather.

ANDREW ROBINSON AIA Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist, is an architect and founder of Designs for Independent Living and a member of the board of the Orange Economic Develop Commission. He serves on the Amity Village Steering Committee and the Household Services Committee of Home Haven Villages. Contact him by phone 203-795-0665.