Townhomes built over retail shops - 4 story building

“Townhouses” or “row houses” are single-family, multi-story attached houses — a style often used to achieve dense, walkable neighborhoods. Most townhouses are case studies in lack of access, or “un-visitability.”  However, there are alternatives. Below are three problem styles and three improved alternatives:

  • No access to ground floor
  • Townhouses over retail
  • Garage under main floor

Problem Style 1: No accessible entrance on ground floor

The ground floor of many townhouses requires many steps to enter.  They often have narrow doors at the half-baths on the ground floor. These houses easily could have been visitable by having a zero-step entrance at the front or back, and 32-inch clear bathroom doors.

Alternatively, Visitable townhouses should be designed with zero-step entrances and half-bathrooms with wide doors on the ground floor. In fact, when designed with a full bath on the main and a sleeping space on the main, this style of townhouses with relatively large ground floors can serve as permanent residences for some people with mobility impairments, while their family members or housemates have bedrooms on the second floor.

Problem Style 2: Townhouses over retail

Mixed-use neighborhoods (a mix of residences, stores, offices, restaurants, etc.) can be great for people who can’t drive due to disabilities or old age. But not if the neighborhoods are full of un-visitable townhouses that prevent people with disabilities from visiting and eject residents who develop disabilities through illness, accidents or aging. The pictured typical, un-visitable townhouses over retail require negotiating many steps to reach the first floor.

Alternatively, the buildings can be designed to be apartment-style with an elevator and an internal hallway. The elevator would trigger the accessibility requirements under the Fair Housing Act, making all of the units having more accessibility than visitablity.

Problem Style 3: Garage under main floor, zero access

In some cities, townhouses are designed with a garage underneath.  The garage is partially below grade, but not wholly, meaning the residence portion is substantially aboveground.  Multiple steps are required to reach the entrance, much less any toilet, socializing room, or sleeping room.

Alternatively, we can recognize that the garage-under townhouse style may be unwise given today’s age demographics and the rising expectations of people with disabilities of all ages to live full lives, including visiting friends and relatives. However, if this style is built, it should provide at least two rooms on the same level as the garage:

  • A half-bathroom with sink and toilet, with door wide enough to provide 32-inches of clear passage space.
  • A habitable room with at least 70 square feet, all with a minimum 32-inch-clear door
  • A zero-step entrance should provide access to these rooms from the garage and/or from an exterior door.

A habitable room is a room intended for sleeping, living, cooking, eating or any combination of those life activities. That excludes bathrooms, closets, utility rooms, storage rooms, foyers, halls and other rooms not intended for living. Code requires that a habitable room must have adequate ventilation, a heating system, a source of natural light (e.g., window), and electric outlets, and meet other prescribed standards for livability.

70 square feet is the smallest habitable room allowed by code, and it must not be less than 7 feet in any dimension. A 7’ x 10’ room would be legal, but a 6’ 12’ room would not. In practice, this added room hopefully would be larger than 70 square feet.

This room with a half-bathroom is suggested as it would permit a resident to heal from a major temporary disability. They also provide a resident who develops a permanent disability a place to survive temporarily while finding an alternative place for permanent residence. For visiting, these rooms at least permit a disabled visitor to hang out a while with family or friends, and if visiting from out of town, stay overnight instead of needing to stay in a hotel or motel.