039: Weather the Weather – Climate Considerations

How can universal design play a part in weather-proofing your home? In this episode, we discuss climate considerations for designing and building universal residences.

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039: Weather the Weather - Climate Considerations
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Show Notes

Hipped Roof

Snow and Ice Melting Mats

Transcript

[00:00:31] Rebecca: Hey there listeners, Happy New Year. Thanks for joining us for a new year of nerding out about universal design. Before we get too far into the episode, I just want to give a special shout out to our self-proclaimed biggest fan, my grandmother!  Happy 80th birthday. We are recording this on your special day for you. So we hope you enjoy.

[00:00:54] Anyway, I don’t know about you, Sarah, but I’m someone who’s pretty cognizant of the weather. Being from Pennsylvania and living in a place where we do get all four seasons every year, I’m really in tune with the shifts from winter, spring, summer, and fall.

[00:01:09] And it’s part of what I love about living where I do. But recently I’ve been thinking about where I live and the seasons that pass and how they affect the house I live in. Different parts of the country have vastly different architectural styles that are largely influenced by the climate and what’s going on around the house. For example, my suburban home outside of Philadelphia looks a whole lot different than a seaside townhome in San Francisco or a home nestled in the mountains of Colorado.

[00:01:40] But, where do UD features come into play in this conversation? What are some climate related considerations that make homes in different regions work best for the greatest number of people? That’s what we’re going to talk about today. So strap on your snowshoes or whip out your sunglasses. We’re talking about weather, climate, and universal design.

[00:02:01] Sarah: Rebecca, I think this will be a really fun topic to discuss. As a kid I remember my mom having the weather channel on all the time to keep up with what was going on in the weather and what was headed toward us. Here in Virginia, we have all four seasons too. And I definitely look forward to each one as well.

[00:02:20] However, fall is definitely my favorite. I bet when many people think about weather in their home, they think about maintenance. And whether you have a disability, health condition, or not. This is something that every homeowner has to consider at some point. Most of our conversations about universal accessibility and our episodes talk about the design of different areas in the home for people to do their daily tasks like bathing, dressing, cooking, et cetera.

[00:02:47] But this topic of maintaining a home in different seasons is a daily activity too. And it’s not really considered that much. So why would people be looking for an easier to maintain home? Well, many people are looking for this as they age. I know my mother-in-law is very active and she prefers to pay a neighbor kid to mow the lawn and do the trimming.

[00:03:11] She actually enjoys a lot of these activities for the most part, but as she’s gotten older, she just does not want to do it all again. Some people choose their living location based on how their body responds to the heat or cold or how easy it is to get around in the snow. Another example is maybe there’s a spouse or a housemate with a disability, and many of these tasks end up falling up on the caregiver. As a mom and a wife to a person with a disability, I definitely appreciate  added help. I just don’t have that extra time. And let’s just be realistic here too. There are many people out there, maybe some of you listening, who just  don’t enjoy the maintenance aspect of home ownership and do not want to spend their weekends taking care of their yard or damaged gutter.

[00:03:59] There are many townhomes or condo associations that have responded to these desires and provide snow removal and outside maintenance, because they know there are people out there who will pay to have this done. I know that living in an apartment complex does have its pros and cons, but it is also very helpful for my family to call on maintenance when we have an issue or something breaks.

[00:04:22] So what types of things regarding maintenance are we talking about here that relate to the change of seasons? In regards to the outside, in the winter, there’s snow to shovel off sidewalks, driveways, and cars. And in the fall, you’ve got leaves to blow and rake. Plus there’s grass, gardens, and flowers to tend to in the spring and summer. As the seasons change, there’s always something to be working on when you’re outside.

[00:04:46] Sometimes these things are a matter of safety and need to be done versus just keeping your home looking tidy. For those that live in wooded areas, trees can be a concern and it’s important to keep them trimmed and remove dead branches. So when that stray wind or storm comes through, there’s not damage to people or property.

[00:05:05] With the change of the seasons, many areas of the country could experience power outages due to severe storms. If you have someone in your home that needs electricity for medical equipment, it’s important to think about having a generator. So if your power goes out for a few days, it doesn’t turn into a life threatening situation.

[00:05:23] Many people that use oxygen, ventilators, have feeding equipment, or need to keep medications and food cold. It’s important to think about what would happen in an emergency and to have your home set up to make it as easy on your family as possible by having that extra power source.

[00:05:40] One thing that I really wanted to make sure I mentioned for this episode, that I actually hadn’t really considered until I started digging more into the concepts of UD and how people would want to function in their homes, is the need for everyone to have access to any shutoff valves, the water heater, air filters, and the breaker box.

[00:05:59] What if a pipe bursts and the water needs to get shut off? How about if there are issues with the water heater or whoever is home needs to check the switches in the breaker box? Many times these things are located in a basement or places that are up high requiring steps or a ladder to access.

[00:06:15] These need to be put in a step-free and easy to reach location so all members of the household can take care of these tasks. What an easy way for someone to be independent as a homeowner, by knowing they can take care of these tasks, whether they’re seated, standing short, or tall? In fact, one of our listeners prefers to find ways to do these things herself, as she wants to keep as many extra people out of her house these days with COVID. And doing that with a disability can be tricky if she can’t reach everything she needs to. 

[00:06:46] Rebecca: Those are all great points and really a perfect place to get us started as the experience of maintaining your place of residence truly is universal. We all have to do it, whether we like it or not.

[00:06:58] Now, to talk about some actual features of the home. Let’s start with windows. When I think of windows, I think about heat. Either heat, getting out of old, not well sealed windows, or he getting in via the sun during the summer months. For these reasons homes and cold areas tend to be designed with windows on the South facing part of the home in order to catch sunlight, while more warm climate homes would avoid this since it can get too hot.

[00:07:26] These types of design choices make it easier to control the climate within the home to make sure it’s comfortable and safe.

[00:07:33] Also, when thinking about windows from a universal design perspective, it’s valuable to consider the actual functionality of the window itself. Where’s the lock? Can all the people in your home reach it and toggle it? Are the windows light to lift open if you want some fresh air? Thinking about these things in the design phase can help avoid a lot of functional issues down the line. Related to windows is the concept of insulation.

[00:08:01] Of course, in cold weather climates, it’s particularly crucial to invest in good insulation to capture all the warmth you possibly can. 

[00:08:09] Sarah: Most definitely. Not only is it important to make sure the home is well insulated during construction, but it’s helpful in keeping your home cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

[00:08:18] I know many people take a good look at their homes when they’re trying to “winterize” it and make sure that areas of the home that do have openings are sealed as much as possible to prevent cold air from coming in and heat from rushing out. Windows and doors are big on to make sure they’re sealed well, like you suggested earlier, Rebecca.

[00:08:37] Some people have window air conditioners that may have small cracks around the edges that need to be sealed too. Check any mail shoots, doggy doors, light switches, and electrical sockets too. I remember my dad getting some of these foam insulation pieces to put in all of the light switches and the electrical outlets when I was a kid to try and lower our heating bill. 

[00:08:59] Another concern when it’s cold and it dips below freezing, you also have to think about your pipes. Oftentimes if pipes aren’t insulated and they’re on an exterior wall, they can freeze and burst causing a big mess. Making sure pipes are well-insulated and even considering not having them on an exterior wall during the design process is definitely a consideration, especially in colder locations.

[00:09:24] Rebecca: Now this all may seem kind of mundane and obvious to homeowners, but it really is design that works for everyone. Thinking about the comfort and function of the home and taking on the initiative to build mechanisms in to support that really is what universal design is all about. Making sure that a wide variety of people can use and benefit from a space.

[00:09:49] Also, on the topic of temperature and keeping it at that sweet spot for all residents, what are your thoughts on thermostats, Sarah? 

[00:09:57] Sarah: Yeah, we can chat about those a little bit. Many smart thermostats can help you maximize the efficiency of your heating and cool cooling system. Some homeowners even choose to install separate systems for different levels of the home.

[00:10:10] You can set your thermostat lower when you’re not at home or even a certain temperature at night. Some systems are pretty neat in that they can be controlled via your smartphone.  You can change it  if you have guests arrive when you’re not at home. Also in regard to temperature regulation, in the design phase of your home, consider the location of your doors and windows that can be open during summer months to create a good cross breeze throughout the home so you don’t have to run your AC all the time. 

[00:10:35] Fans on the ceiling can also help with air circulation, too. Also on the topic of temperature, it’s helpful to have any heating sources checked yearly. Chimneys, furnaces, boilers. So you don’t get caught in the cold, especially during the time where others are having issues due to the cold weather and your wait time to get things fixed could be even longer.

[00:10:56] That’s not fun for anyone, disability or not. 

[00:11:00] Rebecca: Certainly not. And especially for some people with disabilities whose bodies may not be able to regulate their temperature as well, it’s really important to have these things built in, in the design phase. Also personally, I would not be a happy camper if my heat cut out in the middle of January.

[00:11:17] No, thank you. So I am definitely in agreement with your last statement, Sarah. Now, working our way outside of the home, I’m thinking about roofs and how they can be used in different climates to meet a variety of needs. I learned recently about hipped roofs. And these are roofs in which all the sides slope down over the exterior walls.

[00:11:39] I can put an image in the show notes for you. But so if you imagine what that looks like, you can see where this type of roof can keep the sun out of those upper windows and also protect exterior walls from water since it directs the falling precipitation away from the house. Keeping that area immediately surrounding the home dry is not only great to protect the exterior, but also it keeps entryways dry, which is excellent in promoting safety. A safe entryway is critical for any universally designed home. I also understand that dark roofing material is often used in snowier climates because it helps melt the snow and keep that area clear.

[00:12:23] Sarah: Huh? Well, that’s smart about the dark roofs. Another area you want to keep clear right off your roof or your gutters. Gutter covers can help keep things out of your gutter so you don’t have to get on a ladder to clean them. 

[00:12:36] Rebecca: Very good point. Ladders make me nervous so I’m all for avoiding them when possible.

[00:12:43] Also thinking about the exterior of the home, the bane of many winter home owners, existences…driveways. Nothing ruins a good snow day more than spending it shoveling snow, and then icing your sore back for days. Am I right? That’s why I’m supremely jealous of ski town living folks who have heated driveways.

[00:13:05] That, to me, is the coolest thing. Sarah, I know that you used to live in a place that had that. Can you tell me more about this winter wonderland, where snow blowing is not necessary? 

[00:13:17] Sarah: Yes. We lived in a small little town in Colorado called Crested Butte for several months. It was a small little ski town that Scott did his master’s degree internship in at the Adaptive Sports Center. One of the really neat things that we saw there were heated driveways and sidewalks.

[00:13:33] They get so much snow there and it’s just one less thing people have to do to keep their shops open and help them get out of their homes. I mean, they get so much snow, they’d have to be doing that every day. So we actually know a few people there with spinal cord injuries and this was a major perk for them if they owned their home.

[00:13:51] Not all the downtown sidewalks were heated, but if you go for a stroll, you would definitely know the ones that were heated because some parts of the sidewalks were covered in snow. And some parts were just a little wet to almost dry. And it was really easy for us to just move around town.

[00:14:09] I know, in our current town, Scott really can’t go outside and use the sidewalks when it snows because, one they’re rarely shoveled, and two, all of the snowplows actually push the snow on the sidewalks. So he really gets stuck or just, doesn’t try to get around in the snow here. It’s definitely something that communities should consider as well as individuals for residential use.

[00:14:32] I just happened upon a product online that sells these little mats that are heated that you can place on the sidewalks to keep snow off versus a traditional method of running the heating elements, or maybe heated water underneath the sidewalk. I can share a link to these in the show notes as well.

[00:14:51] One more thing I wanted to note about transportation is that I think it is super important to make sure you have a covered place to put your vehicle. This makes it easier for people to get in and out of their cars in the rain and snow and weather, and they don’t have to clean off their cars. This is a game changer for us personally.

[00:15:10] This is also helpful for loading up your vehicle to travel, bringing in groceries, or even loading and unloading all of your kids and your gear. This is great in the winter when it’s cold, but it’s also even better in the summer when it’s super hot. So you’ve got some shade and you aren’t scorching when doing those tasks. A garage is also a great place for all your weather related items, shovels, umbrellas, and shade for the summer months.

[00:15:38] Rebecca: Good point about the garage. I briefly lived in a place where I didn’t have any covering over my car and it was only then that I realized how much I had taken that covering for granted. I really missed it for all the reasons that you mentioned. Now, as the days are getting longer here in the Northern hemisphere, I’m keenly aware of the amount of sunshine we’re exposed to each day. 

[00:15:59] So there’s one more topic here that I want to make sure we hit. Lighting. Depending on how much sunlight you get where you are building your home. It might be useful to build in automatic, whether motion-activated or timer-set, lights around walkways to the entrance to your home.

[00:16:17] Honestly, this is a great universal design feature regardless of climate . But particularly in areas where the sun comes up really late or sets really early. If you’re coming and going a lot in the dark, these paths can be effective in promoting safety. And the same actually goes for inside the home.

[00:16:35] If you’re like me and always wake up before the sun comes up, then you know the struggle of finding your way to the bathroom in the dark to get washed up. If you can light common passageways in the home, like from the bedroom to the bathroom, with low set, dim lights, this too can be a game changer. Some lighting systems even have these on timers, so they won’t switch on until it’s dark and will turn off when it’s bright to conserve energy. Or, they can be motion-activated.

[00:17:03] Again, another great example of universal design in that it works better and promotes safety for everyone, regardless of age or disability status. 

[00:17:13] Sarah: Most definitely. These are really good points. And your comments about the sun and lighting also got me thinking about outdoor living areas too. One of the things that we really enjoy is being outside when the weather is nice. And now with COVID, a lot of people are trying to be outdoors more and connect with friends and family in their yards.

[00:17:32] Earlier, I quickly mentioned that some folks with disabilities actually have a difficult time regulating temperature. And I think you mentioned that to Rebecca. And when it’s really hot and really cold, I think it’s important to make sure you consider how to make your outdoor spaces comfortable and cozy in all seasons.

[00:17:49] Shaded areas in the yard with trees, or a way to create shade in your porch, deck, or pool and hot tub area  really keeps the sun off people as they’re visiting. So they don’t overheat quickly. If people are staying into the evening, when it gets dark, installing cozy outdoor lighting in your backyard will help keep people safe while they’re moving around so they don’t trip over a rock or the dog that’s sleeping under foot. 

[00:18:13] Many people love to create backyard fire pits for keeping warm or making s’mores. Think about how that’s constructed so people can easily get to it without having to go up and down big hills and choose and choose a solid surface to get to that location versus a rough terrain or thick gravel that people may sink into.

[00:18:33] This is difficult for people with decreased balance, low vision, as well as those who use mobility devices like wheelchairs, walkers, and or crutches. I love a good backyard party and cookout. So I couldn’t pass up on helping people make sure their spaces are welcoming with all the activities that could occur in an outdoor space as the seasons change.

[00:18:53] Rebecca: I love that and I appreciate that as well. Well, Sarah, I think that’s actually a great place to wrap up for the day. What do you think? Do you feel like you know enough now to build a home in Antarctica? The Mojave Desert? I feel ready for anything! 

[00:19:09] Sarah: Well, I think that’s a really good point. As a fan of the fall, not too hot, not too cold, I think I’ll let you take the lead on that one and let me know how it goes. But really, I think we’ve hit on some pretty interesting points today that many people may not consider when trying to make their home universally accessible. I know there’s a lot more ideas that we didn’t touch on. And if you’ve done something to your home to prepare it for the changing seasons, that’s particularly functional, we’d love to hear it.

[00:19:38] We’re so glad you’re listening in again with us in 2021. And we are excited to share more with you soon.

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