Building wheelchair-accessible apartments & houses

Architectura shower tray from Villeroy & Boch

Anyone building a wheelchair-accessible home or who wants to renovate an existing house has a lot of factors to consider. Wheelchair-accessible construction or conversion is not always possible. For example, if the doors or hallways in an existing property are too narrow. As well as level surfaces, wheelchair users also need more room to manoeuvre than those who go through life without a wheelchair. The dwelling must therefore be made accessible for wheelchair users with ramps or lifts. If you want to build a new wheelchair-accessible house, a single-level property with even floor surfaces is usually a good choice. What features does a wheelchair-accessible dwelling have? What dimensions need to be considered and how do accessible dwellings differ from wheelchair-accessible dwellings? Read on to find the answers to these questions and more. 

Requirements for wheelchair-accessible dwellings

Accessible bathroom cross section

A wheelchair-accessible dwelling needs to meet certain requirements, including for areas of circulation and movement, handle areas and floor composition. DIN 18040-2 sets out these requirements in writing. The DIN standard applies in general for accessible planning of living space with the basic consideration that this must also allow unrestricted use by a wheelchair user. 

Accessible bathroom cross section

The correct title of the DIN standard 18040-2 is “Construction of accessible buildings – Design principles – Part 2: Dwellings”.  However, this causes great confusion as different, lower requirements apply for a dwelling to be classed as “accessible” rather than “wheelchair-accessible”. The two words are regularly used synonymously in everyday life, despite significant differences in their content.

How are wheelchair-accessible dwellings laid out?

The layout of wheelchair-accessible dwellings is designed to allow people with a physical disability to spend time there and move around in a wheelchair comfortably and without danger.   

DIN 18040-2 differentiates between public areas, for example, outside an apartment block, and private living areas. The public areas must be wheelchair-accessible, i.e. they can be used by a person in a wheelchair. This includes accesses and entrances, garages, communal hallways and communal rooms such as laundries or basements. For example, buildings with a ramp to allow access by wheelchair users, in buildings with several floors, a lift is available to allow access to dwellings without external assistance. There are no insurmountable steps or very narrow passages that make use with a wheelchair more difficult.  

In private living areas, the DIN standard differentiates between accessible dwellings and wheelchair-accessible dwellings. A wheelchair-accessible dwelling meets all DIN standard requirements for an accessible dwelling and other requirements beyond this. The main differences relate to dimensions and special amenities. 

Wheelchair-accessible dimensions for dwellings

How wide does a door need to be for a wheelchair? What size of movement area is required and at what height do window handles need to be located? The following table provides an overview of wheelchair-accessible dimensions for dwellings according to DIN standard 18040-2. 

Controls

  • Distance of 50 metres from corners and boundaries 
  • All kinds of handrails and switches at a height of 85 centimetres 
  • Can be operated with little effort, between 2.5 and 5 N 

Doors

  • Minimum dimensions of 90 centimetres x 205 centimetres 
  • Door peephole at a height of 120 centimetres 
  • Door handle at a standard height of 85 centimetres 
  • Movement areas in front of and behind the door 

Movement areas

A manoeuvring area of at least 150 x 150 centimetres must be available in each room

Kitchen

  • Manoeuvring area of 150 centimetres in front of units 
  • Space for a wheelchair below the sink and work surfaces 
  • Space for a wheelchair below the hob 
  • Working areas arranged in corners 

Windows

Handles are at a height of between 85 and 115 cm, unless an automated mechanism is available

Bathroom

  • Toilet seat with a depth of 70 cm and at least 20 cm from the wall 
  • Spaces of 30 centimetres and 90 centimetres to the left and right of the toilet 
  • Folding grab rails and backrest 
  • Accessible shower space of 150 x 150 centimetres 
  • Support handles in the shower 
  • Accessible shower tap 
  • Space below the washbasin for a wheelchair 
  • The washbasin must be at least 90 centimetres wide and 55 centimetres deep 
  • Height of the roll-under washbasin must be no more than 80 centimetres 
  • Mirror at a height of at least 100 centimetres 
  • Accessible bath, e.g. with a lift  

Accesses to the dwelling and bathroom

The table above shows the main technical information in relation to requirements for a wheelchair-accessible bathroom. What does it actually mean in everyday life if a bathroom needs to be accessible for wheelchairs?  

Manoeuvring space is a crucial aspect in the design of a wheelchair-accessible bathroom. A minimum space of 150 x 150 centimetres is needed to allow wheelchair users to move around without difficulties. A wheelchair-accessible bathroom has a level floor surface with no obstacles such as ledges and steps, and a large floor-level shower that can, in principle, be accessed without external assistance.  

wheelchair-accessible bathroom
Shower tap for accessible use

Flooring is non-slip, grab rails are installed in appropriate places. Folding seats are ideal for use in the shower. These are fitted, for example, to a secure, accessibly designed shower fitting with a high load-bearing capacity. Shower rods with suitable fittings are available in different shapes, for example, with an L or inverted T profile. This is often also used as a support rail. A shower stool can also be attached directly to the pole and folded down when needed. This is space-saving, safe and hygienic.  Accessibility for the bath is more complex. To make it suitable for wheelchair users, a device is needed to allow entry into the bathtub. This is generally a lift. 

Definition of “accessible”

Accessible means that a dwelling has no barriers and can therefore be used by all people, with or without disabilities, and without outside assistance. 

Definition of “wheelchair-accessible”

Wheelchair-accessible means that the design and possible use meet requirements for wheelchairs. 

What is the difference between accessible and wheelchair-accessible?

Do accessible and wheelchair-accessible mean the same thing? No. The two brief definitions in the text above have already outlined the differences. A dwelling for wheelchair users meets and goes beyond the standards that apply for an accessible dwelling. If a house is wheelchair-accessible, this means it is also accessible in the sense of the DIN standard. 

The requirements for an accessible dwelling are not as high than those for a wheelchair-accessible dwelling. The differences between an accessible dwelling and a wheelchair-accessible dwelling include minimum door widths of 80 (instead of 90) centimetres and a required manoeuvring space of just 120 x 120 (instead of 150 x 150) centimetres.  

The requirements for an accessible kitchen and an accessible bathroom are also far lower.  For example, space for a wheelchair below the washbasin or hob is not required in an accessible dwelling in contrast to a wheelchair-accessible dwelling.  

If you incorporate accessibility into your building plans and decide on incremental levels of accessibility, you will create a dwelling that is suitable fur use in later life. Accessible dwellings are often a good choice for elderly people with physical disabilities, but they are not generally suitable homes for wheelchair users. In particular, people with mobility problems and illnesses that require the use of a walking frame or wheelchair will need a dwelling designed for wheelchair users.