Accessing an Elevated Home Using Elevators and Lifts

Lucile Guidry, Attaway, Denise  |  4/15/2009 7:44:30 PM

The 2005 and 2008 hurricane seasons left thousands of south Louisiana homeowners with a need to build homes with the floor above ground or to elevate their existing homes to safer heights. Stairs, or even ramps, are not optimal solutions for accessing raised floors as they can pose problems for disabled, aging and many other people. There are mechanical access alternatives for elevated residences.

An AARP survey shows 83 percent of elderly people want to stay in their homes as long as possible. Accessibility is one of the most often cited reasons for moving out of their homes. The most common mobility problem reported by respondents ages 45 and over was trouble with stairs (35 percent) followed by problems walking (15 percent) and problems with knees, hips, legs or arthritis (45 percent). In the same survey, the addition of ramps, lifts, or elevators was the most-cited modification that respondents said would help them to live longer in their homes. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of Americans over 65 years of age will fall each year. Falls are the leading cause of death by injury and the top reason for hospital admission in this age group.

An inability to manage stairs does not prevent one from living safely or living in Coastal Louisiana. Options such as ramps, platform lifts, elevators, stair lifts and sloping fill can help residents live above the water safely in their elevated homes. Some homeowners have converted dumbwaiters or pulley systems to target this need, however, these options are dangerous and illegal and are rarely cost saving (the justification most often used for inappropriate adaptations).

Safe and legal accessibility options can be costly, but, funding assistance may be available. Despite the high costs, improvements in accessibility yield a significant return on investment when the house is sold.

Chair/Platform Lifts

A chair lift or platform lift lets a passenger roll or walk on to and off of a level platform. Using constant pressure on a control panel (pressure from one finger), lifts the platform until the button is released. For a rise of fewer than 8 feet, platform lifts need handrails but do not need to be enclosed. For most designs and configurations, a pit of about 3 inches must be placed below grade to accommodate the platform unless a ramp is added. Electrical equipment for the device is located outside, typically at grade, but can be accommodated by a regular electrical outlet. Sometimes more expensive than a typical ramp, for lots with narrow setbacks and elevations less than 8 feet, a platform lift may be the best option. It is important to recognize that for wheelchair-bound residents with poor hand strength or control, a platform lift may not be practical. With exposed mechanics and a shallow pit, a platform lift is unlikely to survive a flood; however, installation is cheaper, and platform lifts require no special permitting or inspection.

Residential Elevators

A residential elevator is similar to a traditional elevator in that it is fully enclosed and fully automatic. A passenger presses a button to call for the elevator, enters the cab, then presses a button to send the cab to the desired location. Residential elevators may use the traditional “traction” mechanics found in their commercial counterparts or may use hydraulics. Hydraulic elevators are less expensive and are the most typical type installed in homes but usually are not large enough to accommodate a wheelchair. If the electricity is out, a hydraulic elevator allows for one trip, using stored pressure.

Many elevators require a pit of 6-12 inches even for a small rise, and thus may suffer damage during a flood. However, flood-resistant options exist, including a safety feature that sends the cab back to the higher floor and out of danger, and the shaft walls offer protection if they are not breached, and expensive mechanics can be located at the top of the shaft away from high water. A recent design option is now on the market. It does not require a pit and is becoming widely available. This new design is cost-competitive with the older design, which requires a pit.

An elevator is a good fit for a house elevated over 8 feet without suitable space for a ramp. They can be installed in an area about as big as a walk-in closet and require only the touch of a button to operate. They can rise up to 25 feet, and can go higher with a variance. They also require additional electrical inspection because they run at a 220 amps, and the elevator must be rated for passengers. Maintenance of safety features is important and typically requires a maintenance agreement and for a regular fee.

Stair Lifts

Stair lifts consist of a separate metal alloy or aluminum rail system attached to a staircase and includes a chair that rides the rail up and down the stairs. Stair lifts installed in an exterior application can climb 35 feet in length and require a straight staircase at least 24 inches wide for outside installation. Inside a home, the device can be configured to negotiate landings or spiraling designs. Stair lifts use rechargeable batteries as a power source. The lift plugs into a conventional outlet for continuous battery charging. This feature allows the device to be used regardless if electricity is operating or not. A stair lift is less expensive than a platform lift or an elevator, but it is not wheelchair accessible. There also, as with any weight sensitive device, are load restrictions based on weight. Stair lifts can accommodate all elevations, and may be a good fit for people with limited mobility issues or for those concerned with knee problems or aging. A remote control allows the chair to be stored at the top of the lift during high water, and the aluminum railing will survive a flood unless water stands for several days.

Legal Considerations

Because the accessibility options discussed in this article are intended for residential application, adherence to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is not required. Regulations for accessibility in residential construction come from the Fair Housing Act. The Act applies only to new multi-family construction (four or more units) or multi-family construction that has been substantially damaged (50 percent or more). It requires that all units in a structure with an elevator meet the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) definition for the term “accessible.”

Quality of Life Considerations

Using accessible adaptations when designing a home are usually thought of as a distinctly health or age related concern. However, a reasonable individual will readily see that universal access provides safety advantages, increases the value of the structure and expands the useable life of the home. Additional information is readily found with a simple "Google" search using the terms "access," "universal design," "universal access," "design for life," "aging in place," "handicapped access," "disability access," and any of the other terms used in this article that you want more information on.

Funding Options

Although there is no federal program that caters directly to this need there are a number of programs a homeowner may qualify for that can help finance or fund accessibility options in an elevated home in Louisiana. Below are a few of the available options:

Louisiana Assistive Technology Access Network

This state non-profit agency offers an Assistive Technology Financial Loan Program that provides reduced-rate loans to help disabled Louisianans purchase assistive technology, including accessibility options. Loans can be made for up to $50,000. Since 2002, the program has financed $2.6 million for 143 projects. In addition, Louisiana Assistive Technology Access Network's (LATAN) AT Marketplace provides a classifieds service for people to advertise used or free assistive technologies. For more information, visit http://www.latan.org/.

Medicaid New Opportunities Waiver

The New Opportunities Waiver (NOW) program was intended the help those with developmental disabilities to remain independent. Accessibility modifications would qualify, however, the program has a large waiting list. Funding is provided in a cost-share with the federal and state governments. For information about how to get on the waiting list in Louisiana visit
http://www.dhh.louisiana.gov/offices/page.asp?ID=191&Detail=5301.

Additional opportunities may exist through local independent living offices, organizations that help residents rebuild, as well as through churches and non-profits in your community.



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