Housing, It’s a Human Right (Part 3)
A 3-Part Series on the digital accessibility of the housing process experienced by people with disabilities.
In this 3-part series, we will look at the challenges and rewards of the entire experience surrounding the process of acquiring housing for people who live with a disability.
We will look at:
- Buying an existing home
- Leasing an apartment or home
- Building a new home
All three options have some similarities and many differences. We will recap the 3-part blog series with a webinar, where Matthew Luken and I (Patrick Sturdivant) will have a conversation about my firsthand experience with all three scenarios, and can answer any questions about the process. You can register for the webinar here.
Who is this blog posting for?
We hope that anyone interested in digital accessibility will find this series of value, but more specifically, the blog applies directly to the following groups.
- Business professionals in the housing industry working with customers or providing platforms to support home ownership.
- Technology professionals focusing on the apps, websites, and electronic document resources that drive the entire process from locating, financing, closing, and moving to making the process work efficiently for people of all abilities.
- Digital Accessibility program leaders looking for opportunities to improve their organization’s overall experience for people interested in buying or leasing a home.
- People living with a disability that are interested in participating in the process to own or lease a home.
Part 3: Building a Home “Tailor-Made to Suit Your Needs”
This last piece in our 3-part blog series focuses on my experience building my second custom home. If you’re interested in learning about the experience of buying a home and leasing an apartment or home, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this blog series.
In 1993, I went down a similar path to build my first home. Here’s what was different back then:
- The economy was still in a building-bust phase where there was insufficient work for builders.
- Interest rates were high relative to today’s market.
- I set out on the first build with the support of my parents.
Here’s what both builds have in common:
- I purchased the land before the build.
- I used AutoCAD to assist in the design process.
- I used the same builder.
- The home’s exterior style is very similar in design and materials.
- Lifestyle requirements drove the size and layout of both homes.
I am writing this blog posting because of COVID. So many things in my life have developed or changed due to COVID. About five years ago, I seriously thought about building a new home but felt it would be impossible given that I would be doing it solo since my parents have passed and I don’t have a partner to share in the joy (and work) of home building. I put the idea on the back burner, and then COVID came.
COVID changed everything, giving me a new perspective on life. Working from home was a new reality that I grew to appreciate. It meant I didn’t have to live near the office and that in the future, I would want a house that met my new requirements for enjoying living and working from the same location. Working from home gave me the freedom to pick where I could live, within reason, and motivated me to see a change in my future.
For this blog posting, keep in mind the following:
- I am blind (no light perception). This means I can’t see plans, product brochures, handwritten information, or sketches. Reviewing completed work with no vision is challenging but achievable, given different techniques.
- I am very comfortable with all types of technology.
- I come from a building/construction background.
- I am very comfortable with math and numbers.
- I have excellent spatial relationship skills.
- I could see for the first 14 years of my life.
My advice for potential home builders: Never say never! You can’t be certain when everything will align, and you may find yourself in a similar situation as mine.
My advice for home building contractors and construction workers: Be open to the opportunity of interacting with someone with a disability looking to build their own home.
Build a single-story, low-maintenance home that was as accessible as possible, allowing me to live there for at least the next thirty years. The house would have everything I wanted to live in until I was ready to give up homeownership and move into a true assisted living community 30 or more years into the future. The home would be on one level (unlike my first home) to future-proof my ability to get around all spaces. The house would be constructed with a completely wood-free exterior, leveraging stone, stucco, concrete and steel for its components. The days of rotten wood and painting were to go away. While not completely wheelchair accessible the home would have wide doorways and halls, ramps where needed, and roll-in showers for the future.
Custom building lets you get as close to your ideal home as possible. Custom building is not perfect, as nothing in life is perfect. Custom building is about compromise. Sometimes, it’s compromising for budget reasons but also compromising because you are forced to when something happens and it is too late to make a change. Be ready to compromise to fix problems.
Custom Building Formats:
When considering building a home, as opposed to buying one already constructed, you have a choice, depending on your interest in customization.
- Production Built: These homes are built to the builders’ specifications, based upon a predetermined set of stock floorplans and may allow you at the end to pick floors, counters, paint colors, and plumbing/lighting fixtures from a pre-set list of products. Not all builders allow for customization through interior finish choice, but many do. This format is the most economical, especially if you can find a builder that offers ADA compliant plans if you have that as a requirement.
- Semi-Custom: These homes allow you to customize the product more by moving walls, adding a room over the garage, and picking interior finishes, as well as potentially picking the lot in the neighborhood it will sit on. This option is suitable for people new to building and don’t want to take on the full responsibility of starting from nothing in the process. It blends the best of full custom with off-the-rack home building and provides some level of customization. For the first-time home buyer with a disability this is the best option if you don’t have, or desire to gain, construction experience. This format is also well suited to introducing ADA requirements that are more suited to your needs, as long as the builder is receptive to small changes that can be planned in advance.
- Full Custom: This form of building is what I engaged in during my first and current build. It allows you to start with your own dream and see it come fully to fruition. It also allows you to experience the entire construction process, which has its good and bad points. This can also be the most labor-intensive and stressful, as you start with a clean sheet of paper and have to make all the decisions yourself. It also requires working with a cadre of building professionals to make the reality come true. From architects, designers, land developers, engineers, bankers, lawyers, landscape architects, decorators, and building professionals, you will be engaging with a wide variety of people to make your dream home come true.
My advice to potential home builders: If you are new to construction and have a limited support network, start off by building a production home that allows you some personalization but is much more manageable.
My advice to builders of production homes: Offer accessible websites to highlight your product offerings and have some, if not all, plans that have accessible features as increasingly more people appreciate a good product that accommodates people of all abilities. Make sure your website meets the internationally recognized standard Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.2 AA compliance and ensure any PDF-based materials you offer are also accessible.
Selecting a Location:
We already covered this topic in the first and second blog postings, so I won’t repeat myself but will add that full custom home development typically is in a neighborhood where other custom homes are being constructed but it can also occur on larger tracts of land in more rural areas. Your builder can help guide you in the lot selection process. A real estate professional can also help if you are already working with one. I highly recommend that you do not purchase a lot unless a qualified builder has reviewed it and said your general concept is compatible with the property. A professional builder will warn you about the budget challenges you face when building on different types of lots as they vary depending on the topography of each individual lot. The size of the home you want to build, along with other outdoor structures, will also dictate the size of the lot you need. In my case, I wanted a one-story home, a pool, and a front courtyard garden. This dictated the size of the lot I needed and the amount of slope the lot could have. I knew what the house should look like for the most part; adding in the other outdoor elements dictated the size requirements. You can also approach this in the opposite direction by picking the lot and designing the house to fit the space. It is always best to have an idea of what you want to build before lot selection.
My advice to potential home builders: Don’t purchase land that is not developed, doesn’t have completed streets and utilities, no matter the price. Get a second opinion and ensure your friends and family members weigh in on your selection.
My advice to large developers of residential neighborhoods: Ensure your website and PDF-based brochures and contracts are accessible. Having a ramp to the office door for the sales office is nice, but don’t forget the digital accessibility of your public-facing digital assets.
Accessible Design and Computer Aided Design (CAD) Software
Working with a Designer:
There are many ways to design a home, and no one way is perfect. You can purchase pre-developed plans off the internet, or you can start from a blank piece of paper and an architect or a home designer to work with you and make a unique plan that meets your needs. Many builders offer design services, or you can work with an architect or designer independently before finding a builder. This is the route I went down. I had plans in hand before approaching builders. There is no wrong way to go about it. I do think I would use an architect over a designer due to aspects of my disability, the need to be very detail-oriented, and the need to be able to speak about terms and concepts in a way a blind person can understand.
The key is finding an architect or designer that has experience working with someone with a disability. This was not easy to find, and even harder during the peak of the pandemic, when I had to do the initial design work over Zoom calls. I’d recommend interviewing different professionals and ensure you are upfront with your disability and the challenges posed. In my case, the challenge would be seeing what they drew. Make sure you go to the designer with a requirements list for rooms, rough estimates of sizes, and specific features the home needs to have. Make a list of special features required to make the home accessible to your particular disability. If you are a wheelchair user and desire a two-story home, an elevator system will be a requirement. Ramps are often necessary for wheelchair users, but as a blind person, I really appreciate them too. I normally don’t use a cane indoors or outside when on my property. My home was designed with no steps, so I can come and go without worrying about finding and using stairs. It’s a bit of a challenge when you live on a hill, but my landscape architect and the designer were able to make it happen, and I have a lovely eight-foot-wide ramp sidewalk that leads to the front door.
I am comfortable with using AutoCAD and scripting commands. Using AutoCAD is a very technical skill, similar to programming. Developing the plans for my house was backward from the standard processes. You usually give the designer the list of requirements, and from there, they develop concepts to show you. Since I can’t see these types of concepts when they’re drawn, unless a labor intensive process is executed to build a 3D model, it’s easier to take my ideas in my head and draw them out on AutoCAD, allowing me to show my representation of the layout on paper or PDF for what I wanted the house to look like. The designer would review and we would discuss concerns and challenges. They would propose other ideas and solutions, then back to the AutoCAD drawing board I would go to rework my design. We would iterate on this until we finally got a rough design I was happy with, and the designer said was workable, and then it was turned over to them to develop the final set of plans. We did a 3D model of the final design concept that was used to make small tweaks which was a big help with solidifying the design.
My advice to potential home builders: Find an architect or design professional that’s comfortable working with you. Discuss in advance the need for additional time required to communicate the design so you get what you want and plan a strategy for how you will consume the design if you can’t see it.
My advice to computer aided design software professionals: Work to make computer aided design software as WCAG compliant as possible and provide keyboard alternatives for non-mouse users.
Finding a builder is a lot like finding an architect or a designer to work with. They have to be comfortable and willing to work with someone who does things differently. Pick your builder carefully because in the custom home building business it is a long-term relationship that averages a year or more. There were three months of bidding for the job and contracting, fifteen months of construction, and another one to two months of adjustment and warranty work once I moved in. Your builder should recognize and understand your needs and be willing to be flexible to accommodate your needs. For me, that meant understanding that I can’t see pictures and PDFs that are not accessible. I will have problems with reading, transportation is always a challenge, and any problem solving requires a job site visit to get my hands on the issue in order to discuss. Builders should also understand that they may need to spend more time working with you on selections and solving problems, as it was for me since being blind means these types of things are done differently. Time spent reviewing plans even after initially signing off from the designer is one area I should have been more assertive on in order to avoid some of the problems I encountered, but like anything, everyone is always under pressure for time and this did not get as much attention as needed.
Spend the time to have a conversation with your builder on who is responsible for what activities. Who is responsible for picking up products, reviewing work, and making decisions? How will changes be handled and what’s the process for payment of over-budget items? The more time you spend picking out specific items – make sure to include brand,model number or style – and getting them written into the contract before you sign off on them, the better off you will be.
When building a fully customized home, selection is the name of the game. You have to pick everything, all the way down to the door handle, door style and paint color for the door. While a lot of selection work can be performed online, as long as the site is accessible, there are many cases when it is just easier for a person who is blind to go out and touch the products being selected. For me, this was important when picking tile and flooring. This is normally conducted at a showroom where you are hoping they have the particular product you want to see. Sometimes materials have to be ordered when the showroom doesn’t have a particular sample. Having friends and family that know your style and are good at describing things is necessary. If you are blind, I do recommend you have a decorator or trusted friend that is good with color to help with all color selections since changing color after it has been applied can get expensive. Selecting colors online is a good first attempt at the process but I do recommend actual samples to get a good read on the color before deciding to paint the entire interior a specific color. I found reading color reviews and watching YouTube videos on color selection very helpful, even though I cannot see.
My advice for potential home builders: Talk to your builder up front about all the potential accessibility issues that can come up. Most issues will be PDF based since you will be reviewing a lot of bids and signing off on changes and contracts that usually are in some form of a PDF file. Electronic signature systems can also be another sticking point if they are not WCAG compliant.
The Construction Process:
Construction is a very slow process that takes time, no way around that. You will meet a lot of people during the process and yes, you may be of interest since most construction workers are not used to a disabled customer visiting the job site. They may have a lot of questions, but might not want to ask you directly. In many cases, they may be scared to talk to you, preferring to go through the builder or a friend/family member that may be accompanying you. I don’t like it but this is the reality, at least in my case. The most popular question was always, “how will Patrick get home?”, if I was not with a friend or family member. Not everyone is used to the resourcefulness of people who live with disabilities. Plan on a language barrier too unless you speak more than one language as many of the trades people use English as a second language or may not speak English. Google translate can be your best friend at times.
Inspecting the Work:
During the building process, you will need to be on-site as much as possible to inspect work and catch problems before they get too far in the building process that they can’t be easily corrected. If you are blind, during construction is when the plans become reality and I can almost guarantee some form of miscommunication between architect, designer, or builder will occur and something will either get built, or not get built that, you did not expect and did not catch in the agreed upon plans. I got a gable I did not ask for and really couldn’t fix, a living room ceiling that was not sloped that was fixable for a “nominal” $2000 change fee, and a wall that was six inches too far over that I ended up finding and told the builder about but was completely ignored because it was already too far along in the process. My biggest frustration is not being able to see the plans and having to rely on others to read them for me to catch any problems. Getting people’s attention is hard too and finding someone trained in reading blueprints is not easy.
At first, you may visit the job site one or two times a week, but if you are like me and want to stay on top of things as they progress, you will end up visiting upwards of five to six times a week. Trust me, if a construction worker can find a way to ignore something, they will. It is your job to find the problems, point them out, and stay on top of them until resolved. Don’t expect your builder to always do the right thing as every additional dollar they have to spend fixing something is a dollar out of their bottom line. Expect somewhere during the building process to be taken advantage of. This is normal for anybody building a home and it can be much easier to take advantage of someone with a disability. You hate to have to say that people will take advantage of someone with a disability, but it is often a reality. It is real, and I have experienced it many times, which is why I have to enlist a host of friends, family and hired professional inspectors and engineers to work with me to ensure the project is being built to the requirements outlined in the contract.
My advice for potential home builders: Hire a trusted home inspector for at least three visits to be your eyes on the project and provide professional advice on the progress. This is in addition to the on-site engineer the builder should have to monitor foundation, framing and mechanical work being performed. Let professionals that you may hire know that you will need accessible and compliant PDF documents or alternative document formats, like Word, that are usable to you to be sent for their final reports. My home inspector report was completely inaccessible and I had to OCR (Optical Character Recognition) it to get the information contained.
Home Building Challenges:
Like any major project, communication is the key to success. You will be working with a large group of people to make your custom home a reality. Even if you delegate most of the construction management to the builder, you have to manage the builder relationship as well as the bank, if you are financing. You have many selections to make and have to sign off on things like color, style and quantity. Selections are something the builder will provide their opinion on, but they won’t be making the decisions. If you are not good with making a lot of decisions and writing a lot of checks, you might want to look at the semi-custom route for building a home. The biggest problem in the communication arena is the prevalence of inaccessible PDF documents and payment systems. Yes, the builder will be paying most of the bills but you are most likely going to want a change or to add something to the home that is not in the original contract that you will want to purchase and therefore will have to pay for.
My biggest problem was when I wanted to add glass tile to the bathrooms which was not on the original contract. It should have been simple. The designer at the showroom helped me pick out the glass tile and place the order. Then came time to pay for it. Online payment wasn’t the problem. The form was pretty accessible until it came to signing. The form wanted me to sign with a mouse or my finger on a touchscreen. A royal pain that requires me to find a sighted person to scribble nonsense in a box just to make an automated system happy in order to make the payment go through and get the tile ordered. This happened several times.
Owning property has its advantages and disadvantages. When you own the property, you call the shots since the land is yours. When the builder owns the property, they are in total control since ownership of the completed property and any home improvements don’t become yours until after closing.. Technically, when the builder owns the property they can ask you not to set foot on the property unless you are supervised by them during designated times. When you own the property, you do have to do more work for that advantage of control. Many governmental processes fall on your shoulders to manage. Setting up accounts for utilities and dealing with a property or homeowners association also falls on your shoulders if you own.
Both ways have their advantages and disadvantages but I prefer owning the land despite the extra work and headaches that can occur. I bring this subject up because as the owner of the property and entire project, you will be faced with a host of additional organizations you have to deal with which opens up many opportunities to discover inaccessible systems, such as PDF and online workflows that you have to deal with.
Some examples I encountered were yes/no buttons from my water company for electronic statements set up that couldn’t be operated by keyboard, a troublesome payment form that required a mouse for a simulated signature for trash service, and numerous inaccessible PDFs from my local government regarding tree ordinances. The good news was that my local city government has an accessibility department that helped me out, but they don’t control the electric or water company.
If you are disabled, transportation can be a hassle. Much less so now that we have rideshare. Nevertheless, it is an important thing to take into consideration and you may want to budget for it. I couldn’t be successful at building this house or with living where I am building without the technology behind rideshare. Make sure you have a plan to visit the job site regularly and ways to go to showrooms and building centers to make selections and purchase products. Friends and family are always your best first choice and some contractors are willing to come to you depending on the product and need, but you should always have a backup method to get to where you need to go for conducting the business of building a home since meeting timelines are critical throughout the process.
My advice for potential home builders: Plan for inaccessibility. Try to educate as much as possible, but don’t expect to fix it all. If you do, you may never get your house built.
Digital Accessibility and the Smart House:
When building a fully custom home, you have the opportunity to choose all the products and systems that go into it. This is good because it allows you to tailor the environment to your specific needs, ensuring as much as possible that the products are accessible. This can also be challenging since you will be responsible for the accessibility of each system, which can make the selection process time consuming, tedious and frustrating. Many manufacturers are clueless regarding the accessibility of their own products and unfortunately, most builders are also clueless to digital accessibility and will require you to select products and systems that are usable to you.
Below is a list of just some of the products that warranted a decision I had to make for my new home where the accessibility of the product was in question. If the line item has “connected” listed next to it in parenthesis that means you can manage the item with an app on your phone. If it doesn’t, it means you can’t. In some cases when it came to very expensive items that were run by a touch screen system or app on your phone, I chose a less expensive product where the accessibility could be judged by standard controls.
Climate and Security:
- Thermostats (connected)
- Electronic deadbolt locks
- Lighting controls (connected)
- Security system (connected)
- Security camera system (connected)
- Doorbell (connected)
- Refrigerator (connected)
- Wall oven (fixed touch panel)
- Cook top. (fixed touch panel)
- Microwave oven (fixed touch panel)
- Dish washer (fixed touch panel)
Entertainment and Convenience:
- Garage door openers (connected)
- Audio/video distribution systems (connected)
- Gas fireplace (connected)
- Pool equipment management system (connected)
- Irrigation controller (connected)
- Water softener (physical buttons)
The oven is one specific example of this. There was an option for a color touch screen version but I was told the app didn’t have all the functionality on it, requiring you to still use the control panel for some functions. With expensive items, I erred on the side of being conservative in selecting simpler solutions, until the day comes where all manufacturers are required to make products everyone can use. While the ability to find products with non-touch screen interfaces is still fairly easy, more and more product designers are moving in the other direction especially on more high-end products. A push needs to be made to ensure these products are accessible. My cooktop ordered in 2022 is about to be discontinued and replaced by an updated version with a dynamic touch-screen model that I can’t use. I had to make sure my unit was available as it still has fixed glass panel buttons that don’t change and can be labeled in Braille. Designers and manufacturers of any product that uses an electronic interface that include touch screens should ensure all people of all abilities can see it or that there’s an alternative accessible app on their phone so that full accessibility is provided.
As I finish up writing this posting I am attempting to create my online account for the app on my phone that will manage my swimming pool equipment. It’s not a good experience when you can’t even fill out the create account screen to get into the app but that is where I am at and I will need to get assistance to set up the account to include my password, so there goes security and accessibility for this app. Just another thing for me to work on in my limited spare time.
My advice for potential home builders: Start early in the product selection journey to locate accessible products for your new home. Don’t wait until you are in the building process to find them since there won’t be time and you will be forced to make decisions that may not result in the best experience.
My advice for manufacturers of home appliances, automation and audio/video equipment: Remember that your customers have varying abilities and your products should be designed to meet the needs of as many people as possible.
Important Things to Remember:
- Compromise is the name of the game: Your home will not be perfect, I can almost guarantee it. Knowing how to compromise is key to a successful build and your sanity.
- Have a Plan B: Things will happen. Always be flexible and have an alternative way to solve a problem. Just plan for it. If your favorite roof color is denied by your HOA, be ready with a second color you could compromise on to get the process moving.
- Budget Concerns: I didn’t like hearing this but at the end of my build I have to say it is true. Take your construction cost and add 10% more for final completion. For some, this may be a large number. Given the current economy, it is true. At least in my experience. Remember to always have a plan B.
- Be prepared: Having to answer questions about your disability is common because for many in the construction trade you are the first disabled person they may meet.
At the beginning of the process, especially the design process, custom home building can be a lot of fun. During the initial construction, as the foundation and walls go up, there is a lot of enjoyment seeing your ideas become reality. What is also a reality is that the farther into the building process you get, the more problems will appear. By the end of the entire process, you will be worn out and you’ll probably just want time alone without a contractor asking you questions that require decisions or more money to be paid.
Would I do it again if I could roll time back three years?
Will I custom build again in the future if I find myself needing to move again and buy another home.
Would I do this all over again if I had the choice?
More than likely. I would certainly give the thought of purchasing an existing home more of a chance before going down the path of custom building, but I would do it again.
It has been a three year long journey from looking at property and getting my past home ready for sale (first year), to designing the home, purchasing the land and locating a builder (second year), all the way to the actual building process (third year), which at the time of writing this blog, will be about fourteen months total, not including the pending landscape work.
The home building process is definitely a life experience and I am glad I am doing it now when I am still young and able to endure physical and mental stress. I got my perfect home for the most part and I look forward to the day when it is truly complete. I still have a lot of landscape work to complete that will take time, energy and of course money. I still have the move-in process to work through and look forward to being completely moved in, pictures hung and all boxes unpacked.
Digital accessibility is everywhere in life, including all aspects of the home building process. From construction professionals, to big box stores, to home construction product manufacturers, their websites, PDF documents, apps and touch interfaces. All need to be accessible to people of all abilities because all people should have the right to have a place to call home that they feel safe in and are able to live in comfortably.
I hope you enjoyed this three-part series on “Housing, It’s a Human Right”. Make sure to tune in for the webinar by registering below. I also welcome your comments, questions or requests for more detail on how I handled a specific piece of the home building process through the comment form below.