Michigan Accessible Homes
A Division of Cornerstone Design Inc, Architects
Frequently Asked Questions: Accessible Design

what is accessible, barrier free, or universal design?

There are multiple terms used to describe a home or other building intended to be more usable to people with disabilities. The State of Michigan was a leader in requiring that businesses and governments be designed for use by people with disabilities, using the term "Barrier Free" to describe its requirements, and the term is still often used in Michigan.

When the federal Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, the law and subsequent regulations used the term "Accessible" to describe their goals for buildings, sites, and programs. Neither the state nor federal requirements typically apply to single family homes, but the terms have filtered down into common usage for home design, and largely mean the same thing: a home which is designed according to the general principles of accessibility included in the various laws and regulations. Homes, however, have flexibility to take some shortcuts that businesses do not, if those work for the occupant.

Universal Design is a more complicated term, and often means different things to different people. In general, it means designing to accommodate people of all ages and abilities. Practically that can mean a few different things:

  • For business and government buildings, going beyond the minimum requirements in state code and ADA Accessibility Guidelines, to provide additional turn space, more accessible parking or accessible toilet stalls, and so on.

  • For homes, which have no accessibility requirements, universal design can mean applying the principles of accessible design - essentially the same practical result as "accessibility" or "barrier free design."

  • Including options for people of different ages and abilities. For instance, a kitchen could have counters at different heights to accommodate a standing adult, a standing child, and a person in a wheelchair.

The important point is not to get hung up on the terms, which can be used pretty interchangeably, and to focus on getting a home that will work for you, now and in the coming years, regardless of what happens with your life.

For more information on the features of an accessible home, download our PDF document, The Accessible Home.

What standards are there for accessible home design?
The short answer in most cases is: none.  Although there are many state codes and federal guidelines that define what is required for commercial design, none apply to single family homes in most cases although they provide excellent suggestions for what to do.

You do generally have the flexibility to decide what works for you; as you may see from the plans on the Past Projects page, our designs have varied based on the preferences and needs of the individual we were designing for.  You may decide you are not interested in a particular accessible design feature, because it's not useful to you or your family member with a disability.  Or you may want to go well beyond the guidelines to provide greater flexibility in in your daily life.

We generally start from the recommendations in your OT report, if one is available, and add in your preferences, and our expertise in designing for people with disabilities, to determine what to include.  For insurance projects, accessibility features need to be "medically necessary" to be covered by insurance company funding, which means it needs to be recommended by one of your medical care providers.

How does the cost of an accessible home compare to standard construction?

Please see our new page on The Costs of Accessibility for detailed answers to this question.

Will an accessible home look unusual or institutional?

It can be difficult to make an existing home accessible without having the accessibility features stand out: adding a ramp on the front, modifying a few kitchen cabinets for greater access.

When designed in from the start, however, or with careful attention to the details of a modification, an accessible home does not have to stand out as different from its neighbors. The ramp can be replaced with a walk to a no-step entrance; the roll-in shower can look like any other nice large shower.

Even grab bars, while usually necessary for safety and accessibility, do not have to be the stainless steel commercial type and can be selected to match your decor. We will work with you to balance your budget with the look you want to achieve.

I need an accessible home as a result of an auto accident, so my insurance company will be paying the costs.  How does this affect the process?

The insurance company has specific obligations under Michigan law, to provide you with an accessible living situation. They also, however, have obligations to manage costs carefully, so it will complicate the process of design and approvals.

The insurance company may require that you first investigate modifications to your current home to determine the extent of their financial obligation, even if you prefer a new home. They may not be willing to provide the level of quality you want for finishes, fixtures, and so on, although you should have the final say in what gets built provided you pay the differences in cost. They will certainly be involved in the process of bidding and construction, possibly with an additional round of inspections and paperwork for paying construction bills.

The best advice is probably to get an attorney experienced in this area of law, to help you negotiate with the insurance company to get what you need.

Do I need a contractor that is experienced with accessible design for my project?

Past experience with design and construction for accessibility is always helpful; however, with a good set of plans from an architect, you should be able to get a home which works well for you using any contractor that is careful and conscientious about following the plans.  If you have a contractor that you know and trust, contact us about how to design the project so you can work with them and still get the home you need.