Ramping up for access
You’ll encounter a significant but invisible barrier even before you cross the threshold of most Canadian homes: the difference in elevation between the sidewalk or driveway and the main floor of the house. Stairs are the typical means to gain access to those elevated floor levels, and spatially they are quite economical, gaining the fastest ratio of rise to run. Stairs, however, don’t work for everyone. A visit from someone for whom those stairs are a nearly insurmountable obstacle – perhaps a friend or relative in a wheelchair, or an elderly person who no longer has the stamina to do much climbing, even a parent lugging a child in a stroller – will soon illustrate the unforgiving nature of stairs for those carrying heavy loads or who have mobility issues. Access ramps offer a means to bridge the height difference and enable those on wheels or on foot to gradually raise themselves up that crucial distance to the ground floor.
A significant and growing percentage of the Canadian population experiences mobility issues. Statistics Canada estimates that nearly 2.5 million Canadians over the age of 15 have “difficulty walking, climbing stairs, or moving from one room to another.” Given an aging population of baby boomers, that number will continue to increase in the coming years. As of 2010, seniors made up just over 14 percent of the Canadian population, whereas projections predict a massive acceleration in which seniors represent over 25 percent of the population by 2056. That demographic shift, combined with a tendency for seniors to remain living at home longer instead of moving into health-care settings, means that adaptations to their houses, like adding access ramps, will become increasingly common and necessary in the future.
There are a number of important theoretical and practical guidelines that you’ll need to consider in designing and building a safe and effective physical access ramp for your home. We’ll take a look at building code requirements for private residential settings that regulate the construction of physical access ramps, design and material considerations, and some nuts-and-bolts advice about how to construct them. I’ll be referring predominantly to the Ontario Building Code, which is informed by the National Building Code of Canada, and is quite similar to codes in other provinces. In most cases, I would recommend you build to exceed code requirements to avoid designing and constructing a ramp that is uncomfortable or challenging to use.
While handrails are not required on this low ramp, they make for a more comfortable and safer user experience. Two details to improve upon in this photo are: deck screws should be ACQ approved and posts should be 4 x 4s to resist lateral loading.
Well Thought Out
This ramp, instead of abruptly terminating at a level landing, gently curves at the ramp top and along the top rail. The ramp was intentionally included into the larger framework of the design of this home.
Durable materials such as the composite decking on this access ramp will ensure a long life and require very little maintenance.
Details are Important
Small details like leaving minimal spacing between decking (less than 1/4") will make for a much more wheelchair-friendly ramp. A screw makes a good spacer.
Unlike the example in this photo, the transition onto the bottom of the ramp should be smooth as possible, following the slope of the ramp. Carefully poured concrete, or in this case (below), a precisely fitted piece of plywood, will smooth the transition from ground to ramp.
Building codes specify that the slope of a ramp accessing a private dwelling be no steeper than 1:10; that is, for every inch of rise there must be at least 10 inches of run. That number signifies the outer limit of what is recommended and while helpful, won’t lead you to create a user-friendly ramp. A case in point is a ramp at PEI’s Brackley Beach built by Parks Canada, which rises an unrealistic 18 feet over 250 feet of length. As a YouTube video about the Brackley Beach ramp illustrates, if a ramp is too steep or too long it will become itself a nearly insurmountable barrier to those with mobility issues (youtube.com/watch?v=AHL2twJoJuk). A more effective and forgiving slope lies in the realm of 1:16 or even a more gently sloping 1:20.
Length & Width & Height
If you’re planning to build a ramp, the first practical consideration you’ll come up against is that you’ll need a lot of space to make it happen. To gain access to a front door or porch that is 30″ off the ground at a slope of 1:20, you’ll need a staggering 50 feet of ramp length, which for most yards is a significant amount of real estate, especially when you add in landings for change in direction. Therefore, rising any more than 30″ is usually not practical. Single stretches of ramp should be no longer than 20 feet so that the user will not become exhausted while walking or wheeling between landings. As for the width of access ramps, code minimums for residential settings will specify a minimum clear width of 34″, although, practically, 39″ will make for a better ramp that won’t feel cramped. If handrails intrude into the width of the ramp space, you’ll have to make it wider to maintain the clear width you’re aiming for.
Landings allow for breaks between ramp sections and are necessary to allow a wheelchair to pivot at a turn and a person to rest before continuing on to the next slope. They are required at the top and bottom of every ramp with a slope of 1 in 50 according to code, and if there is a situation where there is a door or opening partway along a ramp, it will be necessary to have a landing that extends 11-3/4″ on either side of the opening. Practical landing dimensions will be different depending on whether a scooter or a wheelchair will be turning on them. Wheelchairs can pivot on a 60″x 60″ landing while a scooter with a longer turning radius will need 83″x 83″.
Barriers, Handrails & Railings
Just as with stairs, a railing, or guard is required by code if the height of the ramp is more than 23-5/8″ higher than the surrounding grade level. Guards over this height must prevent against the passage of a spherical object 4″ in diameter (that is, a young child’s head). Curb barriers keep a wheelchair’s wheels from slipping off the side of a ramp and, while not a code requirement, are recommended especially on low ramps when a guard is not required. They should be at least 2″ high in order to be effective. A handrail is required on at least one side of a ramp if it’s less than 43″ wide, and both sides if wider. Handrails should be maximum 2″ wide otherwise they are hard to easily grasp and there should be at least 2″ of space between a handrail and an adjacent wall. Handrails by code must be 31–38″ above the surface of the ramp, but will be most effective at a height of 34–36″.
Landscape vs. Built
It’s quite possible to landscape an access ramp directly into a yard with concrete or smooth stones, especially if the required rise is only a few inches. Otherwise, you’ll have to get creative and build something out of wood, deciding first on a shape to fit your yard. Straight ramps are the simplest, but most higher ramps will need to be switch-backed, L-shaped, or U-shaped to negotiate obstacles and fit into your yard space.
Built-in or Removable?
If you choose to construct an access ramp, you can build it so that it becomes a permanent addition to your home, or so that it can be removable. Removable ramps are only as reliable as the surfaces they are placed upon, however, especially as the seasons change. A ramp placed on concrete deck blocks resting on grass will be affected by freeze and thaw cycles and could make for some unruly and unsafe transitions onto and off the ramp. A ramp that is built overtop of a stable existing walkway with stairs could be sufficient to withstand seasonal changes. However, if you’re starting from scratch, it is best to construct a permanent ramp on a proper foundation that goes below frost depth.
When choosing materials for building your access ramp, you’ll follow the same thought process as if you were building stairs or a deck, so you’ll need to use materials that are resistant to decay. For framing wood, you’ll likely choose pressure-treated lumber, but for decking and railings you can use pressure-treated wood, cedar, or composites depending on what your preferred finish will be. If you’re using pressure-treated wood, you’ll need to make sure your fasteners are galvanized nails or ACQ-treated deck screws so that they will resist corrosion. You may want to add texture to your ramp with outdoor carpet, a textured paint, or even roughly sanding the decking boards to provide more traction for feet or wheels. Typically, materials that are durable and low-maintenance suit ramps and their owners, as elaborate staining or finishing is often challenging for those with mobility issues.
Construction of ramps will need to be in accordance with your site conditions, local building codes and municipal bylaws. In many parts of the country, you’ll need to set concrete footings to a depth of at least four feet to avoid frost damage. Galvanized metal 4 x 4 post saddles set into the concrete will anchor the bottoms of structural posts. Ramps will be constructed with the framing joists or “stringers” running parallel to the direction of travel, and decking running perpendicular to the framing. Tight spacing on the decking will make for a smoother ride (max. 1/4″), and in some cases a treated plywood may be necessary for an easier climb in a wheel chair. Four-by-four posts that will support handrails and guards should be tied into the framing to be more solid and surrounded by blocking to support where the decking will meet the posts. Three-inch treated deck screws will allow you to connect your framing safely and even remove it in future if necessary.
For spacing between posts and joists and required lumber sizing, consult your local building codes, treating the landings and guards as you would an exterior deck.
One of the areas that is critical to get the details right is in the transitions onto and off the ramp. At the bottom of the ramp, there should be a gentle transition onto the ramp, with no tripping hazard or bump to have to climb before rolling upwards. This may mean ripping a very smooth transition strip that follows the slope of the ramp, or even using a metal plate if required. You may need to sink the ramp’s framing members below grade, which is not ideal for preventing decay in the wood you’re using. If you need to do this, excavate the area and fill it with crushed stone, which will provide good drainage and foil the attempts of frost to heave the ramp upwards. At the top of the ramp, the transition must be equally smooth, with no awkward place for a tire to get slowed down just as a person in a wheelchair may be starting to tire.
If you’re going to go to the trouble of constructing an access ramp, it’s not a place you will want to cut corners or opt for the minimum dimensions. As its builder and designer, it’s a great idea to borrow a wheelchair and try a couple of existing ramps out before you even start designing. You can get a sense of what works spatially and what materials will provide the most user-friendly experience. That knowledge, coupled with the limitations of your site, will allow you to craft a ramp that will create a welcoming and barrier-free access to your home.