Home & Living

Barrier-free living space - what makes it accessible and where mistakes happen

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April 2024

Housing should meet the needs of as many people as possible. The more accessible homes on the market, the better. Accessible homes not only meet the needs of people with physical disabilities. Many senior citizens are also dependent on barrier-free apartments and they also offer many advantages for families with children. However, not every property that is described as barrier-free is actually barrier-free. In this blog post, we provide some pointers for assessing whether a property is barrier-free.

Self-determined living is a human right

First of all, we want to briefly clarify the legal basis - because from a legal perspective, barrier-free housing must be made available in Germany. According to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which has been in force in Germany since 2009, self-determined housing is a human right: Article 28 (1) of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognizes the right of persons with disabilities to an adequate standard of living with their family in terms of food, clothing and housing. It calls for steps to be taken to continuously improve living conditions and promote the realization of this right. But what characterizes accessible housing?

Important difference: low barrier is not the same as barrier-free

Accessibility is still often mistakenly equated with the absence of stairs - combined with the ability to use an elevator, for example. However, it is not quite as simple as that - far more criteria need to be met to make residential buildings barrier-free. The DIN 18040 is the basic standard for barrier-free building and planning in Germany. The set of standards consists of three parts and aims to make buildings barrier-free so that they can be accessed and used by people with disabilities in the usual way, without particular difficulty and generally without outside help (in accordance with Section 4 of the Disability Equality Act). In particular, the needs of visually and hearing impaired people, people with motor impairments, users of mobility aids and wheelchairs, young and old people, people with cognitive impairments, older people, children and people with baby carriages and luggage are taken into account.

The first part of the standard defines standards for the construction of public buildings, the second part deals with how apartments should be designed to be barrier-free and the third part contains specifications for the barrier-free design of public transport and open spaces. This article takes a closer look at the requirements for the barrier-free design of apartments.

Accessibility starts on the property

A barrier-free apartment makes little sense if it is not accessible. For this reason, the access route and entrance to the building should be designed to be barrier-free. Where the ground level makes it difficult to connect to the street with a permissible gradient

wheelchair-accessible ramps must be provided. In addition to barrier-free accessibility, additional requirements for surfaces and color schemes (these should be visually contrasting) must be observed in order to make the building accessible to as many people as possible. Ideally, there should be wheelchair-accessible and appropriately marked parking spaces on the property.

Interior development and barrier-free entrances

In order to provide barrier-free access to the inside of a multi-storey building, an elevator should ideally be provided. This is mandatory for new five-storey buildings anyway, but should also be provided for new buildings with fewer than five storeys if possible. One area that is often forgotten in connection with accessibility is the transition from the entrance door to the apartment. The front door should have no thresholds or a maximum threshold of two centimetres. The color of the door should stand out from the rest of the façade. Automatic door openers make access to the house considerably easier - they increase convenience for all residents. They increase convenience for all residents and are an important aid for people with motor disabilities. All rooms located in the basement of a residential building - both communal and private - should also be as barrier-free as possible and easily accessible thanks to electric door openers and closers. Access to existing balconies should also be barrier-free and these should be of a minimum standard size to be accessible for wheelchair users.

Elevators - no mini shafts please

It is good if there are elevators in residential buildings. However, these can only be considered barrier-free if there is sufficient space in front of the lift (1.5 x 1.5 meters according to DIN) and the cabin is at least 1.40 x 1.10 meters in size.

Inside the elevator, there should be a low-mounted control panel with extra-large controls so that the elevator can be operated by as many people as possible. Stairs can also be designed to be barrier-free: They should have a handrail on both sides, positioned at a height of 85 to 90 centimeters. To make access easier for visually impaired users, handrails should ideally be equipped with tactile information.

For example, the floors can be marked relatively easily and inexpensively using applications and notches in the handrail. In addition, it makes sense to highlight the edges of the steps with color contrasts - this can be done, for example, by milling with colored inlays. Smaller building entrances that are only accessible via stairs should be supplemented with a ramp.

Where to go with a wheelchair and baby carriage?

Suitable storage facilities are needed for wheelchairs and other mobility aids, as well as for baby carriages. Unfortunately, however, this issue is often only considered by people who are dependent on these items. If appropriate storage facilities are not taken into account when planning a residential building, this means a great deal of inconvenience for those affected: In older buildings in particular, tenants are often forced to park wheelchairs and other mobility aids in their own hallway for fire safety reasons, and parents often have to lug baby carriages into the basement, which is often a hassle. In a well-designed residential building, there should be an easily accessible, conveniently located, dry, clean and safe place to store these items.

How are interiors designed to be barrier-free?

To ensure accessibility, there are minimum dimensions that rooms should have - hallways should be at least 1.20 meters wide. If an apartment is to be wheelchair-accessible, there must also be a movement area of 1.50 x 1.50 meters in the hallway, and this radius must also be maintained in front of the doors.

Interior doors are considered barrier-free if they have no lower door stops or thresholds and have a clear passage width of 0.80 meters and a height of 2.05 meters. Windows, especially in living rooms, should allow a view to the outside even when seated (achievable through a sill height of 60 centimeters) and be easy to operate. Floor-to-ceiling windows meet these requirements and have the advantage of allowing plenty of light into the living areas.

Nobody should climb into the shower in new buildings

When it comes to bathroom design, accessibility should be a top priority. While many younger people have no problem climbing into a shower cubicle for a long time, for older residents this can pose a risk of injury or at some point become an insurmountable obstacle, making it almost unthinkable to use if they have restricted mobility. In modernly built or renovated apartments, steplessly accessible shower cubicles should be a matter of course today, support and grab rails should be able to be fitted if necessary and doors should not open into the sanitary room.

There should be sufficient space in front of washbasins and toilets as well as in the shower area - the DIN standard stipulates a space of around 1.20 x 1.20 meters. Washbasins should also be usable while seated, and the shower area should be non-slip and lowered by a maximum of two centimetres. If a bathroom is to be wheelchair-accessible, there are extensive requirements - toilets must bea certain height, the toilet flush must be accessible from a seated position and a folding shower seat must be available. So if an apartment is designated as barrier-free and wheelchair accessible, the regulations can be used to check exactly whether or not it meets the formal requirements.

Conclusion: accessibility pays off

When investing in a property, it is worth paying attention to whether the property is designed to be barrier-free - and if not, whether it can be retrofitted accordingly. It makes sense to work towards barrier-free design of living spaces, not only in view of demographic change, but also out of a sense of social responsibility towards all people who depend on it. Many measures - especially for hearing and visually impaired people - can be implemented with little effort. If an apartment or house is being renovated, it makes sense to convert it to be barrier-free right away in order to avoid cost-intensive conversions at a later date.

There are no plausible reasons to forego barrier-free design in new buildings. The study "Barrier-free construction in cost comparison" by Terragon Wohnungsbau comes to the conclusion that barrier-free construction is a question of planning and only to a very small extent a question of cost. This is because - according to the authors of the study - only a few of the criteria for barrier-free construction required by DIN 18040 are associated with additional costs.

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