Extensive damage from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike has caused many homeowners to build at higher elevations, or raise their existing homes to safer heights. Many people have, or will, turn to elevators, platform lifts or other mechanical systems as their primary means of accessing the elevated floor. This is particularly advantageous when the occupants or frequent visitors have limited mobility or other issues that would affect safe use of ramps and stairs. This article describes the more natural, “built in” accesses for elevated homes – ramps and stairs, the building code requirements that apply to these features and to buildings that have these features, and how to select the best non-mechanical options.
Stairs may present insurmountable barriers to aging people, but they also may present problems for busy families, delivery persons and repairmen, as well as people in wheelchairs or are disabled in some way. Many challenges with stairs can be overcome by building ramps into the landscape and immediate approach to the raised floor. Mechanical systems are covered in, “Accessing an Elevated Home Using Elevators and Lifts." Louisiana has a higher rate (9.9 percent) of physical disability than the nation (7.5 percent).
Stairs are probably the oldest manner of getting from one level to another in a constructed space. The International Residential Code (IRC) sets some standards for residential stairs; there are more stringent (safer, comfortable) guidelines for stairs in the Americans with Disabilities requirements for commercial property. The IRC requires a maximum rise of 7.75 inches with a minimum tread of 10 inches. This often is too steep for individuals with reduced mobility, balance and/or strength. A shallower slope for stairs is safer and more comfortable for most people, especially children, people shorter than 5 feet 2 inches and those with diminished physical capacity. Reducing the rise to about 4 inches with an 11-inch tread will increase the safety and ease of use significantly. ADA does not permit open risers, though these are allowed by the IRC.
Ramps are often used for access to an elevated structure. The IRC defines a ramp as “a walking surface that has a running slope steeper than 1 unit vertical in 20 units horizontal (5-percent slope)." Code requires that a ramp be atleast 36 inches wide and have a maximum slope of 8 percent, which means it must traverse 12 feet “forward” for each 1-foot rise. There is a hardship exception that allows one-foot rise over eight feet (12.5 percent maximum slope). The rise in this instance cannot exceed 6 inches and are usually only used for "curb cuts," according to the Americans with Disabilites Act guidance. At either of these rise-rates, ramps can chew up a lot of real estate in a hurry. A primary consideration when planning a ramp, therefore, is whether there is adequate space on the ground to accommodate it – either as a straight ramp or with turns.
For significant height rises ramps can wrap around a home or it can go under the home. Turns add overall length, however, because a level platform is required at each change in direction. The platform, which is also required at the top and bottom of the ramp and anywhere that a door opens onto the ramp, must be no smaller than 3 feet square, and no smaller than the width a door that opens onto it.
While ADA requirements are not in force on residential structures, the guidelines it contains are a good planning tool. Safety and functionality requirements recommend that a ramp is cannot have more than a 1-foot rise over a 12-foot distance (1:12) and must be at least 36 inches wide (U.S. Congress 1990). ADA, however, prefers a slope of 1:16 to 1:20, noting the standard 1:12 slope is difficult for able-bodied individuals and that even 1:16 can be difficult. The slope and width restrictions were put in place to accommodate the size of a wheelchair and the ability of a person to manually climb with the wheelchair. ADA requires ramps to have handrails for safety.
If your site dimensions and footprint of the house are complicating attempts to add a ramp, check with your local permit office and the ADA specialist at the Louisiana Rehabilitation Services office near you to explore options. Accommodating the space needed for a ramp may be easier if you are building a new home. Even on smaller urban lots, a deeper front setback can be implemented to make room for a ramp. However, retrofitting some urban homes, especially in the New Orleans area, may offer obstacles difficult to overcome if "ramping" is the only identified option. For instance, shared porches in double-occupancy homes, and side setbacks of 30 inches with minimal front yards offer challenges that the use of a ramp may not be able to overcome. In addition, the rising cost of wood and concrete and the engineering requirements are not always the inexpensive option as they once were. In fact, they might end up being the most costly.
A ramp is a good fit for medium rises, large lots or for those who qualify for funding assistance. Ramps have no moving parts, and require minimal maintenance. Ramps also can be built by a knowledgeable homeowner or volunteer force. The lack of moving and mechanical parts means that ramps provide a completely floodproof access alternative. After a storm event, simply sweeping off and hosing down the ramp is all that is necessary unless moving water has moved the ramp from its original location or debris has affected it.
Code requirements for Guard Rails, Egress and Safety Glazing
The IRBC sets standards for the construction of stairs and ramps, in Section R311. These not only include the slope, tread depth and riser height, but also width, headroom requirements, how the stairs or ramps attach to the structure, requirements for landings at doors and wherever the direction changes.
The areas around stairs and ramps are considered “ specific hazardous locations for the purposes of glazing." The extent of the area and the safety-glazing requirements are contained in Section R308.
Guards are required on ramps or landings that are more than 30 inches above the floor or grade below. Guards have to be at least 36 inches high. Stairs that have a total rise more than 30 inches from the ground or floor, and that have open sides, require guards not less than 34 inches in height measured vertically from the nosing of the treads. Guard requirements are in Section R312 of the IRC.
Code even sets standards for the height, grip-size, and placement of handrails for ramps and stairs that have four or more risers in a continuous run. Handrails are detailed in Section R311.5.6 of the IRC.
Quality of Life Considerations
Using accessible adaptations when designing a home is usually thought of as a distinctly health or age related concern. However, it’s easy to see how 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.
Although there is no federal program that caters directly to this need there are a number of programs that 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. Some programs may be available only for mechanical systems (elevators, lifts). Be sure to inquire if they apply to stairs or ramps.
Ramp Up/Fixin’ to Stay Louisiana
This state advocacy project works to match residents who need ramps with funding sources and contractors who can help them get it done. Funds may become available through various government or non-profit agencies to fund ramp or other accessibility projects to qualified residents. Ramp Up works as a matching service to bring residents with needs to groups that can help them. To fill out an application, visit www.rampupla.org or call Ron Blereau at the Governor’s Office of Elderly Affairs at 225-342-0177.
Louisiana Assistive Technology Access Network
This state non-profit 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, LATAN’s AT Marketplace provides a classifieds service for people to advertise used or free assistive technologies. For more information, visit www.latan.org.
Medicaid New Opportunities Waiver
The NOW waiver 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 the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.
Additional opportunities may exist through local independent living offices, organizations that help residents rebuild and through churches and non-profits in your community.