We have many ways to evaluate the addition, correction, renovation, or remediation of home features for our clients to assist them with living safely and comfortably in their homes as they age in place. Generally, we refer to these suggestions and recommendations as “guidelines” or “standards” – not in the sense that they are required but that they work well for many people.
If we look at the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards, we can find many recommended heights at which to locate various assists and controls within the home and widths to maintain for doorways, hallways, ramps and walkways, and other access points. Generally, none of these are required to be used, but many of them make sense and should be used or included in residential design. In some cases, these standards may be part of local building codes – not because there are ADA requirements but because they have been promulgated by local authorities.
Thus, it is not required that grab bars be installed in bathrooms or that they be of a certain size, material, or mounted in a particular location. Outlet locations are more a matter of convenience and custom that they are a requirement. Customarily, outlets are installed fifteen inches from the floor (to the center of the outlet) although some are now being done at eighteen inches. ADA suggests both a taller height and a lower height than this depending on how someone accesses it. Again, just guidelines or recommendations.
However, outlets are required to be either GFCI (ground-fault circuit interrupter style in wet areas such as bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms, and exteriors of the home) and recently the AFCI (arc fault circuit interrupter style in all other locations in the home – a recent upgrade from just requiring them in bedrooms and sleeping areas). Now, there is a new combined arc fault circuit interrupter (CAFCI) which will likely be the new norm. The CAFCI protects against both series and parallel circuit wiring and is useful for power cords as well.
Because there is no requirement for the vertical location of electrical outlets or receptacles, we can see them used in a variety of locations. In open floor plans without many interior walls, floor receptacles are used. There are best practices for how to use them to minimize tripping or stumbling issues, but no prohibition against using them. It is common for there to be outlets (of the GFCI type) in kitchen and bathroom backsplashes or in the ends of base cabinets, vanity cabinets, or islands. In home offices, laundry rooms, and workshops, it is common to see outlets mounted at desktop or countertop height in the wall or along the countertop.
In some locations, where security lights or cameras are desired that use an electrical connection for their power or to recharge batteries, it is common to see outlets installed near the ceiling or roofline.
Similarly, we like to see light switches, fan controls, and other wall-mounted devices mounted no higher than four feet from the floor. Typically this is not an issue and has been done for decades even without any published or recommended guidelines. It’s a matter of practice, as many commonly used or installed features are in a home. Drywall or sheetrock comes in four-foot widths, and when it is installed it is attached horizontally to the wall studs. The top of it is notched or cut-out for the switches so they are never going to be higher than four feet from the floor unless someone specifically desires it to be located higher.
So many other items in home construction are not regulated either but are installed at the heights, widths, or styles that they are through recent convention – meaning that consumers generally have requested it to be done this way or contractors have done it this way so often that it has caught on and is accepted as being normal. For instance, using taller toilets because many people find them easier to use than the traditional height ones is a guideline and common practice in many cases but usually not a requirement. Single-lever faucets in the kitchen, lever door handles on interior doors, and rocker-style light switches make sense in so many ways, but they are not a requirement – just recommended and generally used.
There are many more guidelines, best practices, and concepts we follow in designing new construction and remodeling homes for aging in place purposes because they facilitate safety, access, ease of use, and convenience for the occupants of those homes. Guidelines give us the flexibility to discuss and recommend various solutions with our clients to decide what works best for their needs without being concerned about having to comply with a series of mandates or rules.