Part 7 of my adventure into making my home a lifetime home. Zero thresholds mean zero hassle, but what the hell are they??
(Featured image credit: trimdiy.com)
Read time: 9 minutes
Zero thresholds: what the hell are they? If you don’t currently need one, or know someone who does, you may never have heard of them or given what it means a second thought. But it is one of the most important things you can do to your home to ensure it’s accessible for a lifetime. It is basically a completely flat entrance into your home and internally between rooms too. Simple right? But I challenge you, after reading this, to take a look at your own home, then your street, your workplace and anywhere else you may interact with on a daily basis and see how many (or few) zero thresholds there are. Then imagine for a second what it would be like if steps were a no-go for you. In particular, you will find a huge number of homes where the front door may be raised some way above ground level with a few steps leading up to it. It’s very standard on any street in the UK.
This is my favourite though, not far away from me:
The fact there is disabled parking outside makes me really wonder who lives in this house and what kind of struggles and dangers they must have to deal with.
Not just for wheelchairs
You are probably thinking of people who use wheelchairs right now, and of course this is a major group of people who benefit from zero thresholds. But who doesn’t benefit from a trip-hazardless transition from place to place? What about when you are pushing buggies, bikes, luggage, looking down at your phone on the move, as well as the many people with invisible disabilities? This is before even mentioning my favourite subject – you guessed it – older people. As we get older (and many other times too, of course) many of us may need to use all manner of walking frames, shopping trollies, walking sticks, crutches, mobility scooters and so on. In these situations, even a single step or raised lip can be troublesome, sometimes completely insurmountable.
So we can all agree a zero threshold home is the gold standard of a lifetime home in theory. But “There are always going to be some places where it is just not viable to put in zero threshold entrances!” I hear you cry. Of course this is true; we do not live in a flat, empty blank canvas of a country. We have to navigate the restrictions of physical space, such as building on a steep gradient (like the house above – a ramp here would be like a death slide!) or in areas prone to flooding and so on. And of course we are limited by the existing housing stock. I have just returned from the Edinburgh Festival where five-storey tenements are the norm and are the result of the way the city has built up over many years and there’s not a whole lot you can do about that, unless you are going on Grand Designs anytime soon.
Stuck in the past
But we are no longer living in the Industrial Revolution. Knowing that we have an ageing society and having a general agreement amongst most rational people that we would like our communities to be as inclusive as possible, these homes should be the minority rather than the majority from now on.
The problem is that sadly not enough new homes are being built with even the most basic accessibility features as standard. It seems ridiculous to me that we are happy to let builders’ comfort, ease and profit for a couple of months trump the comfort and ease of the generations of residents who will live in these buildings. It also costs a lot of money for individuals to adapt and retrofit their homes at a later date and doing it this way doesn’t look that great either. Often something like this, and this is a nice version:
Yet architects and construction companies have the technical expertise to build zero thresholds and other accessibility features (such as good width doors) at the outset, at very similar costs, we just seem to lack the will as a society to make this so.
So it falls to us – individuals – to make this happen case by case. Look at these cool ramped alternatives. There is no one-size here as it really depends on the set up you have, but there are some really innovative and beautiful ideas out there, available if you talk to your builder. It only needs to be on one entrance to the house, which could be round the back if that is easier. If/when you ever redo your patio, drive or porch perhaps look into whether you could build something similar safely, elegantly and affordably instead of the off-the-shelf steps. I’d love to see any things you have tried too.
I would absolutely love to see incentives given to people when they make their homes more accessible (even if they don’t urgently need it themselves) much as the government did with insulating homes for exactly the same reason – it saves us and them money down the line.
It makes me a bit sad when I walk around and see people putting in beautiful new drives and front gardens and then ruining it with unnecessary step(s). I lament that not only are they excluding lots of people from visiting them right now, but they will likely have to change this in the future, struggle or even move out, when they could easily have made this an inclusive entrance during the building process at no extra cost or hassle if they had just had the information, inspiration and incentive available to make it seem like an option.
Here are a couple of decent examples I snapped while walking around my area the other day:
The same applies to inside your home. You may not notice it now, but even a small lip can be a trip hazard for those who shuffle or use walking frames etc. so it is worth phasing them out over time as and when you redecorate where you can. There are some really cool ideas for room-to-room transitions now. I love this one between rooms:
What about renting?
As renters, even with the best will and all the money in the world, we are unable to make any major renovations to our home to make the thresholds more accessible. So we were in the position of having to find a home that already fitted the bill, which basically meant ground floor or a place with a lift. Helpfully for this particular experiment, our budget dictated that most of the flats we could afford were miles up huge tower blocks (which hopefully have lifts that work…) or ground level anyway. If price is anything to go by, these are apparently the least desirable places to live – I guess due to the negative perceptions of privacy, security and image. But haha housing market! You didn’t know these homes were actually an accessibility bonus for me. I win! (sort of…gotta be glass half full…more on ground floor living coming later).
Outside our current flat, there is just a single step into the main communal part of the building. This is OK for us at the moment, but in other circumstances it could become a bit of a pain in the backside. I was certainly so thankful for the lack of steps when we moved in. It made the moving process slightly less hassle than it could have been. A while back we used to live on the fifth floor without a lift and moving in and out of this place still haunts me to this day, both mentally and physically (i.e. in the crick in the neck I now have from getting a double bed downstairs on my own). You may think this was stupid, but without the readies for a removal team, so many people must have this issue too, making moving home an even more painful, dangerous, time-consuming nightmare than it already is.
Zero thresholds = happy cyclists and new parents too
As a cyclist, this is also a dream for me. As I’ve already mentioned, I have lived in plenty of places where I have had to carry my bike up multiple flights of stairs in order to store it. Not only is this deeply frustrating and pretty hazardous, it also marks the paintwork (shhh! Don’t tell anyone it was me…). Should we ever have kids this feature in our new home will also make the buggy battles much easier too. I have seen so many new parents dragging prams up stairs, babe in arms. While quite impressive, this doesn’t seem that sensible or fun at anytime, let alone when operating on about an hour’s sleep.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not calling for the abolition of steps here, just a bit more foresight. I loved our five-floor late 19th century/early 20th century townhouse when we moved to London – the location, the balcony, the price. It did the job as a houseshare for me and my friends when we lived there. But when it was built, the average life-expectancy was around 50 and to paraphrase my new favourite book, given that most of the homes built today should last roughly as long as us (more like 100 years now) it is likely that someone aged 75 or older is going to live in them at some point, so it just seems sensible we should be designing with this in mind (Age-Friendly Housing by Jeremy Porteus and Julia Park – you should read it).
“Getting old is no joke”
Being on the ground floor means we haven’t got the issue of internal stairs to worry about, but this is certainly a problem for some of the other people in our four-storey block. Legally there doesn’t have to be a lift in a building like this, so obviously that means there is no lift. And it’s not just because our house was built in the 1960s either, there is still no obligation to install lifts in mainstream multi-storey dwellings built today either, unless they are specifically designated in the planning stage as an ‘accessible dwelling’. Surely, the very least you can ask from any home is to be able to get in and out of it? Otherwise it’s just a completely pointless storage box full of your stuff, just not you. It’s a bit like building a house without a roof as standard unless you specifically tell them to put one on. It sounds like I am being silly here, but that really is pretty much what we are doing.
Within a couple of days of moving in, we met one of our neighbours – a lovely older lady who lives above us on the first floor, and has done for many years. She was struggling to get in our communal front door and up the single flight of stairs with her single bag of shopping and a walking stick. Shamelessly trying to make a good impression on our new neighbours and gain early Brownie points, we gave her a helping hand (also because we’re not monsters). Following our friendly chat, one thing she said really stuck with me: “It’s no joke getting old”. There’s so much wrapped up in this little off-the-cuff remark. There is going to come a time in her life, probably not very far from now, where she is unable to make it up those stairs independently anymore. She is not that old, and this is her home of many years where she feels comfortable and safe near friends, family and things she enjoys, and yet she will have to move, or else risk becoming completely housebound. Accuse me of pessimism or scaremongering all you like, but these will be her options, as they will be for many of us. I see it all the time in my work and it is one of the saddest things to witness – the slow ebbing away of independence and happiness simply because of less than ideal housing. The side effect is isolation and loneliness. People go out less and less because it is a hassle, even dangerous. Their friends cannot come and visit either for the same reasons. The worst part is that it seems completely unnecessary; it is something we have the power to change. What are we doing continuing to build houses like this when we know we are all getting older? It makes no sense.
For us, should we ever need it, we would just need an external threshold ramp installed. Luckily these are not too expensive and are readily available and is something any landlord or fellow residents could not reasonably refuse. However, they don’t look great, if I’m honest. Total lifesaver – yes. But style statement – no. Well, not in the way I’d like anyway.
I am completely in love with this Canadian organisation called Stop Gap that rolls out bright, beautiful and tailor-made ramps to businesses that need them to make communities more accessible.
I love the unashamed boldness of them – they are a statement not just in colour, but also in concept. And such a great excuse for a piece of gorgeous artwork on your doorstep that makes people smile as they come in. We should all be celebrating access like this rather than trying to hide it like a dirty secret, which sadly all too often we seem to do with the dreary black and grey ones you usually get.
So now you know about zero thresholds. Thanks for sticking with it! I thought that was going to be a quick one, but as with more and more of this stuff I am finding there seems to be a lot to say. If you have any thoughts on anything I’ve said I’d love to hear them.
I will cover doors and doorways in another blog soon as these are a massive part of the conversation too. As I suspect you can imagine, I have a few things to say about these too…