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Promoting Accessibility in Disaster Relief Housing

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Promoting Accessibility in Disaster Relief Housing

Front Cover of Design Details for Accessible Disaster Relief Housing
During the past decade, the United States has seen some of the most destructive storms in living memory. Thousands of people have been displaced from their homes because of hurricanes along the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean and flooding from torrential rains along the Mississippi River and throughout the Midwest. Following Hurricane Katrina, for example, the Disaster Housing Assistance Program administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and HUD provided housing to more than 36,000 displaced households. For individuals with mobility limitations, however, natural disasters can be even more destabilizing if their temporary housing does not adequately meet their needs.

“Design Details for Accessible Disaster Relief Housing,” describes the design considerations that enable accessibility for survivors of a disaster. Dwelling units must balance the need to be compact (and thus easily transportable and assembled/placed onsite) with adequate space for those with limited mobility. The manual illustrates a number of possible solutions and provides guidance for designers wishing to create temporary housing that accommodates the special needs of persons with mobility, visual, and hearing impairments; persons with multiple disabilities; and seniors.

Disaster Housing Building Blocks

Disaster relief housing ranges from extremely mobile but spatially constricted travel trailers to more spacious and flexible park model homes to larger, potentially permanent manufactured homes. Although each housing type is best suited to different situations, they must all feature accessibility, especially to those with multiple disabilities, with visual or hearing impairments, or who are seniors. The manual recommends a number of building blocks to ensure accessibility through design.

An accessible route that is at least 36 inches wide should connect all rooms and spaces in the home. Furnishings should not obstruct any part of this route, and each room must include turning space — either a circular turning space with a 60-inch diameter or a T-shaped turning space. Clear floor space that allows residents in wheelchairs to use appliances, fixtures, and equipment is also essential. Clear floor space should be directly adjacent to an accessible route that can be reached either by a parallel or perpendicular approach and includes knee and toe clearance under horizontal spaces such as sinks and tables. Those designing parallel or perpendicular approaches need to consider clear reach ranges, determined by a person’s approach, position, and ability to reach over an obstruction.

Designing Rooms

Designers must apply certain design considerations to all rooms regardless of their type or function. How will someone in a wheelchair move in the space? What room elements will be within reach and how will they be used? In all cases, designers must maintain clear access throughout and between rooms. Also, small considerations such as pocket doors, grab bars, and level surfaces and thresholds can minimize obstacles and improve mobility. Design elements to include the following:

  • A front porch may help relieve feelings of claustrophobia in small dwelling units. A porch must provide an accessible route and have adequate turning and maneuvering spaces. If there is a ramp, it requires a slope ratio of 1:1.2 and a level landing pad at least 60 inches by 60 inches. The entry door threshold must not be greater than half an inch above the surface of the porch.
  • Living and dining room spaces are typically combined as a flexible, multiuse space and may include a sofa bed, coffee table, and dining table. An accessible route should connect the entire space, link all important elements, and, in the event of an emergency, have direct access to the entry door. Dining tables should be designed for knee and toe accessibility and include casters for maximum flexibility.
  • When planning kitchen spaces, designers need to keep reach ranges in mind. A common configuration includes an accessible countertop, with a forward approach and knee and toe clearance, adjacent to both the sink and range. At least 50 percent of cabinet storage space should be within accessible reach and appliances need a minimum of 30 inches by 48 inches of clear floor space and a clear approach. Installing a spray unit or goose neck faucet at the sink makes dishwashing easier for those with limited mobility.
  • Because some bedrooms are no larger than 70 square feet, furnishings must be carefully placed to allow for adequate turning space and an accessible route to each piece of furniture. Windows must also remain accessible, both for ventilation and as an emergency exit. The report recommends including a bed, small dresser, and built-in closet in each bedroom.
  • Bathrooms require turning spaces and clear approaches for maneuverability at each individual fixture. T-shaped turning spaces will often work in bathrooms, which are frequently too small for a clear circular turning space. Fixtures for bathing arrangements can include a roll-in shower or tub as well as a shower transfer bench. Grab bars and removable bath seats also make bathing easier. A grab bar (36 inches or longer) must be installed next to the toilet, and the center line of the toilet must be 18 inches from the side wall.


Emergency housing designed to promote mobility and accessibility can help mitigate the instability that comes with losing one’s home by easing the transition to temporary housing. Incorporating accessibility features requires additional attention to detail; designers and builders will find this manual useful in meeting the 2010 Americans with Disabilities Act Standards for Accessible Design and the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards.


The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.