How to build and renovate disability- and age-appropriate facilities

Torben Schröder

A house that is inadequately furnished for people with disabilities or in old age can become a hazard. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are enough possibilities and solutions to enable people with physical disabilities to lead an independent everyday life, and therefore to continue to live contentedly in their own four walls. Here you can find out what to bear in mind when planning accommodation suitable for people with disabilities and the elderly. We also provide information on the legal basis for accessibility in Switzerland and on the financial support available. You can also learn how to adapt a bathroom with a toilet, and kitchen and living areas.

A young woman sits in her wheelchair in the living room and looks out into the sunny open air.
© Getty Images/ iStockphoto

In this article

Planning for accessibility

How you approach an accessible conversion project depends primarily on two important factors:

1. The needs of the person the building is being converted for

Start by asking yourself a few questions: how severe is the physical disability of the person concerned? Do they use a wheelchair? Or a walking frame? Can they provide for themselves in everyday life? Can they go to the bathroom by themselves? Whatever the situation, it’s important that the result after the renovation work gives the occupant large areas to move around in, allows them to use accesses such as doors without any problems, and ensures that handles and switches are within easy reach.

2. The facilities or barriers in your house or apartment that will need to be adapted

Do you live in a modern house with clear structures and right-angled rooms or in an older villa with narrow corridors, steep stairs and door thresholds on the floor? Keep in mind that the most expensive and technical solutions do not necessarily lead to the best results – the simple, practical ideas are often the most effective.

As a general rule, you should consult a professional with regard to accessibility planning.

The legal basis

Equality for people with disabilities in Switzerland is the subject of the 2004 Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). With regard to housing, it contains guidelines for publicly accessible buildings and facilities with more than eight residential units, for example.

In 2009, the SIA 500 standard “Obstacle-free buildings” issued by the Swiss Association of Architects and Engineers also came into force. It aims to make every building in Switzerland accessible without discrimination. It is worthwhile for people with private property to have a look at the documents because they provide information about accessibility: for example, how wide should a door be? How much space is needed in front of a lift?

Financial subsidies

Ensuring accessibility in a house or apartment can be an expensive matter, depending on your needs. The costs of a ramp, a stair lift and the complete conversion of a bathroom can amount to a high five-figure sum. For this reason, you should make use of financial subsidies where possible.

A nationwide program is operated by the disability insurance. Among other things, this covers the financing of conversions or adaptations in private homes – provided the person concerned has not yet reached AHV retirement age. If you are interested in subsidies at cantonal level, you should contact a local advice center. A source of further information is Pro Infirmis, for instance.

The Swiss Paraplegic Foundation is a useful point of contact for people with spinal paralysis. This charitable foundation, based in Nottwil, offers various types of support for paraplegics and quadriplegics in need, including the conversion of housing.

Accessible rooms and living areas

The rooms in which the person with the physical disability spends the most time should be designed and equipped accordingly. This means the bathroom, the kitchen, the living room and the bedroom. Places that are difficult to access, such as the basement or the attic, should only be used by non-disabled persons in the household.

View of an accessible apartment: on the left, part of a bedroom can be seen with a bed. On the right there is a bathroom with a shower and toilet.

Accessibility can be achieved with a few conversion measures in living rooms such as the bedroom and in utility rooms like the bathroom.

1. The bathroom

A healthy person probably doesn’t even realize, but the bathroom is the place where we carry out the most actions which place extremely varied demands on our body and on the furnishings: standing in the shower, sitting on the toilet, lying in the bathtub, bending over the washbasin. For this reason, the bathroom is also the room with the greatest potential for optimization in terms of accessibility.

  • Shower: the greatest focus here is on safety. This can be ensured by a level entrance (“walk-in”), a seating area, a non-slip floor and additional handles. Conveniently accessible storage facilities and a height-adjustable hand shower provide added convenience, for instance.
Close-up of a folding seat in an accessible shower; behind the seat there is a shelf for shampoo and shower gel.

A folding seat in the shower increases both comfort and safety.

  • Bathtub: the conditions outside the bathtub are just as important as those inside. Is the space in front of the tub free of obstacles? Can the taps and drain be operated from outside the bath? Easy access is provided by a door in the side wall.
View of an accessible bathtub that is appropriate for the elderly and people with a disability, complete with a door.

The standard high entrance to a bathtub can become an obstacle – a door can help.

  • Toilet: wheelchair users in particular require a lot of space when using the toilet. This applies both to the door – which needs to be 90 centimeters wide – and to the toilet itself. The toilet should be installed with a depth of 70 centimeters from the front edge of the toilet to the rear wall. The seat height is usually 40 centimeters. Wheelchair users require at least 90 centimeters of additional space on one side of the toilet bowl so that they can park their wheelchair parallel to the toilet. Extra handles make it easier to use.
View of an accessible bathroom: in the foreground is a toilet; a shower can be seen in the rear corner.

Wheelchair users need a lot of space, especially when using the toilet. There should be at least 90 centimeters of free space to the left or right.

  • Shower toilet: as the name suggests, this is a combined toilet and shower. In principle, the shower-toilet is a toilet that includes a shower to wash the user’s bottom and a heated seat. Depending on the manufacturer, there may be additional extras such as an odor extractor and a warm air dryer.

2. The kitchen

Accessibility is particularly important here. Everything should be tailored to the person concerned, or to their needs. This means unhampered access to all upper and lower cabinets and drawers, including their contents. Easy access to electrical equipment and sockets is also important. Here too, the greatest challenge is to adapt the conditions for a wheelchair user.

In a kitchen, a young woman in a wheelchair pulls down a movable wall unit containing crockery to eye level.

Movable wall units make it easier for the person with a disability to work in the kitchen.

A long shower hose in the sink, a retractable worktop and wall units that can be adjusted in height at the touch of a button – these are all examples of features that can be used from a sitting position. Putting food in the refrigerator and plates in the dishwasher can be a chore even for non-disabled people. For a wheelchair user, the fixtures should therefore be positioned at viewing or working height.

If the kitchen is being converted for a blind person or person of low vision, elements that can be easily felt and electrical appliances that emit acoustic signals are necessary.

Information on accessible kitchens is available from the Zangger joinery, for example.

3. The living room and bedroom

In the living room and bedroom, the focus is less on structural elements and more on furnishings. In addition to sufficient space and a door at least 90 centimeters wide, furniture suitable for people with a disability is therefore required. Standard designs from large furniture stores are usually not suitable.

The key factor is usually height adjustability. To furnish your accessible living room, sofas and armchairs are available that can be raised and lowered very easily by remote control. People can sit down at a high level without much effort, then make themselves comfortable at a lower level. A dining table should also be adjustable in height or should have an initial design that is high enough to allow wheelchair access.

In the bedroom, a wardrobe with upper compartments that can be lowered to grab height is a good idea. The bed should also have functions suitable for people with a disability and the elderly. These include variable height, an adjustable lying surface – divided into head and foot areas – and, ideally, access from three sides, for example if care services are required.

What’s more: in a household where a person with a disability and a non-disabled person live together, everyone can benefit from accessible features such as a height-adjustable desk.

4. The stairs

Steps are probably the biggest hurdle in a house with several stories. Accessible solutions are available here too – first and foremost lift systems. These usually consist of a rail system, a drive unit and the seat. Since the staircase in each home is different, every stair lift is a custom-made product. There are standing lifts for people who find bending their legs painful, while lifting lifts exist for wheelchair users. You can obtain information from Högg Liftsysteme, for example.

View of a stair lift at the foot of a modern illuminated staircase with wooden steps.

With a stair lift in your own four walls, even steps are no longer a problem.

The intelligent home

The smart home – i.e. living simplified by modern technology – can also play a role when it comes to accessibility. The buzz word is Ambient Assisted Living (AAL). This ideology is intended to facilitate the everyday life of the people concerned through intelligent methods, solutions and products.

Examples of AAL technologies:

  • Smart speaker with voice software: the most famous product, Amazon Alexa, offers users the possibility to do their shopping by voice and have food delivered to their home, for instance.
  • Wi-Fi doorbell: users can use the app to ask, or even see, who is at the door via a smart display. If you don’t know the person, you can avoid direct contact and therefore stop conmen from the outset.
  • Fall detection: the necessary sensors can be installed under practically any type of flooring and detect when a person has fallen over. The system then automatically triggers an alarm. A similar function is also included in the latest Apple watches.

Older people, in particular, who have grown up without modern technology, will quickly make friends with technologies that can be operated intuitively. No previous knowledge is necessary. However, a connection to the Internet is required in the house or apartment.

Nonetheless, a smart home always has to address the issue of data security, the reliability of the various elements and the ability of family members to take care of technical support promptly in the event of a system failure. You should keep these aspects in mind when using smart technology.

Conclusion: accessible conversion is worthwhile

To save a loved one from moving to a retirement home or an assisted facility, it is better to make their house or apartment accessible for them. A wide range of possibilities exist, from a converted toilet to a completely new kitchen. In Switzerland, there are official bodies that help bear the costs of accessible housing to enable people to remain in their own four walls.

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