Visitability is the quintessential accessible design strategy. It is the foundation. Universal design is similar but deals with more functional and aesthetic elements. Aging in place strategies benefit from both.
Visitability as a concept is thirty years old, but it is still a new idea for many people. Also, there is a textbook approach to visitable design and a much broader practical and perceptive approach. In the classic or textbook approach – the one that many local jurisdictions are being to codify into to local building requirements, there are three main elements: a half-bath on the main floor, 32″ of doorway clearances throughout the home, and a zero-step entrance into the home (at least one). Clearly, these are minimal guidelines – and in some cases requirements – for making homes accessible to all who would enter them.
So, let’s take a broader, more intuitive approach to visitable design and see what is possible. First, let’s be inclusive. The basic premise of visitability is that anyone who enters a person’s home should have basic, unrestricted access to the main floor. The emphasis is on non-occupants of the home – neighbors, visitors, invited guests, or out-of-town relatives who visit. That’s fine, but what about the people who live in the home – shouldn’t they be accorded the same freedom? Thus, visitable design is access for anyone who enters the home whether they live there or not.
The other limitation that the classic visitable design definition imposes or suggests is that it only applies inside the dwelling. There is a much broader view to consider.
Let’s begin at the street and go from there – and let’s not stop until we get to the alley, rear fence, or property line – whichever applies. This means that the entire property – front yard, side yard, and rear yard, in addition to the home itself – needs to be accessible and usable by anyone who would want to approach it.
By beginning to consider visitability at the curb or perimeter public sidewalk, we are interested in any person – regardless of their age and whether they are ambulatory or being assisted by a device or someone else – being able to approach and eventually enter the front or side door (whichever has the easier point of access). It means that the driveway is not overly steep, that it consists of a continuous (non-cracked) hard surface, that there are loose particles (sand, gravel, or leaves) on it, and that it is wide enough to allow parking and pedestrian usage together.
A person has to be able to move from the driveway to the entrance – or use the central sidewalk extending from the street to the entrance (across the front yard) and not encounter a sidewalk that is too narrow, one that is uneven or cracked (or non-continuous as with stepping stones), and one that is not too steep. Then, there has to be easy access to the stoop or porch, and this frequently involves a series of steps, making it unusable – and non-visitable – for many people.
Another couple of aspects about the stoop or porch is that it needs to be large enough (and many architectural designs don’t provide for this) for the people – one person or a group – to await entrance to the home by having someone on the inside open the door and welcome them. The entrance should be covered so that it prevents precipitation from making them uncomfortable as they wait – this is largely overlooked or under-addressed in home design also. Lastly, the entrance needs to be well lit to create a welcome feeling, a sense of arrival, and provide a feeling or security for those waiting to enter.
There are other considerations between the street and the entrance, but this notion greatly expands what commonly is thought of as visitability. If someone is hindered from gaining access to the home, it can’t be considered visitable!