Remodeling for Accessibility

Many remodeling projects today include removing barriers to accessibility within a person's home.

December 31, 2002


These are common dimensions, but be sure to get manufacturers' specs regardless.

Many remodeling projects today include removing barriers to accessibility within a person's home. The stairs are the most significant obstacle. When comparing the cost of an elevator to moving expenses and real estate commissions, remodeling for a home elevator is much more affordable and less stressful. Knowing how to incorporate elevators into project design and construction is becoming more important to remodeling contractors.

Accessibility to different floors is particularly important to senior homeowners, but home elevators can be useful to people of all ages. Unlike expensive seasonal amenities such as swimming pools and sun rooms, elevators get daily usage and pay huge dividends. They reduce the risk of stairway accidents. Many homeowners in our area with basement garages use elevators to transport groceries and luggage from their vehicles.

If you live in an area where architects encourage homeowners to plan for the future, you might find stacked closets in the floor plan, which allow for easy installation of a home elevator. Providing a 4x5-foot closet with an independent floor system at each level and a small equipment room is something you might want to recommend if you're designing an extensive remodel or addition. By roughing in the necessary framing and electrical requirements, an elevator can be installed years later with minimal construction and provide a great service to the customer.

However, you're most likely to walk into an existing home with no provision for an elevator. In that case, likely locations include closets, room corners and stairways. It's also possible to build an external elevator shaft and finish it to match the exterior so that it looks like original construction or a chimney.


Typical elevator specifications
Hoistway dimensions: 53"W x 55"D (recommended minimum for wheelchair access)
Cab dimensions: 36"W x 48"D standard inside clear dimensions
Available cab heights: 6'10", 7'4", 8'0"
Rated loads: 500-, 750- or 1,000-pound lifting capacity
Speed: 36 feet per minute
Safety descent: Battery backup system provides emergency lowering
Interlock: Electromechanical interlocks secure doors at each landing
Pit depth: 12" clear depth capable of sustaining specified loads
Drive machine: Winding drum or roped hydraulic
Machine room: Adjacent to hoistway at lowest landing behind track system
Electrical: 240-volt/30-amp for elevator and 120-volt/20-amp for lighting
Maximum travel: 50 feet
Maximum number of stops: Five floors
Overhead clearance: 8'6" above top floor

Before installation

It is important to contract with a reputable, licensed elevator contractor. The company should have knowledgeable sales staff to assist in the design process. Most residential elevator contractors are available for on-site consultation to ensure a quality design, one that uses space efficiently and also considers door swings and traffic flow. Getting this person involved from the beginning helps in identifying necessary structural changes and ensuring accurate estimating. Be sure to choose a contractor who offers regular maintenance to ensure safe, dependable operation. Preventive maintenance contracts are very affordable and usually provide periodic safety inspections and lubrication as needed to reduce premature wear on parts and prevent costly repairs and downtime.

For safety, do not remove stairs for elevator installation without providing sufficient exits at each level. Even with a battery backup system, the elevator should not be used for egress in an emergency. Also check local codes to verify fire-rating requirements for the elevator shaft.

The elevator shaft, or hoistway, is typically a 2x4-foot or 2x6-foot stud wall framing with drywall and trim. Reinforced track mounting supports on the rail wall provide the necessary structure for track installation. A pit, or recess in the floor, is required for smooth transition into the elevator at the lowest landing. If the house is built on concrete slab, a 12-inch pit is recommended. Allow for a standard 220-volt/30-amp dedicated power line for electrical supply.

You also need to find a space for the machine room. Ideally, this is a 4x4-foot enclosed space behind the track system at the lowest landing. Depending on the model, a machine room could be incorporated into an adjacent closet, a crawl space or an attic.


Elevator features and options
Cab wall panels: Laminate, glass, hardwood veneer or raised wood panels
Ceiling: Choice of matching wood or white melamine
Lighting: Recessed ceiling lights, surface light fixtures or wall sconces (battery backup lighting also available)
Controls: Polished or brushed brass, polished or brushed chrome (digital position indicator, "car here" light and in-use light available)
Handrail: Matching wood, brass or chrome
Telephone: Wall-mounted or recessed in phone box with brass or wood cover
Cab gate(s): Scissor-style or accordion-style, wood or acrylic (accordion gates available with automatic gate opener)

Choosing an elevator

Elevator interiors, or cabs, are enclosed by the traditional scissor-style gate or the more contemporary accordion gate, which can include an automatic power gate operator for "hands-free" operation. Cabs typically vary from 12-18 square feet with platform dimensions of 3x4 feet or 3x5 feet, which accommodate a wheelchair and an attendant. Custom sizes are readily available depending on available space. Custom cabs can include everything from digital floor indicators to vaulted ceilings. Telephones are a standard feature and are typically wall-mounted or installed in recessed phone boxes within the wall panels.

Modern elevator safety components are state-of-the-art. At each level, an interior door is secured by electromechanical interlocks that prevent the door from opening unless the elevator is at the correct landing and prevent the elevator from operating while the door is open. The broken-cable safeties prevent a cab from ever falling, and pipe-rupture valves prevent failure if hydraulic pressure is lost. On many systems, battery lowering is standard, providing emergency descent in the event of a power failure.

The installed price of a residential elevator ranges from $12,000 to $20,000, depending on the number of floors the elevator needs to service and the options chosen.

J. Alan Jensen is president of HomeLift of Nashville Inc. in Nashville, Tenn., and has been involved in the residential elevator business for 17 years. He can be reached at

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