Tiny Tuesday: Wheel Pad Makes Your House Accessible

By and large, the world is challenging for wheelchairs. In public settings in the US, new construction and renovations must conform to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which specifies ramps, elevators, and 5-foot turning diameters to make the buildings accessible to everyone. But private homes aren’t bound by the same standards. That means many people faced with mobility impairments come home to entry stairs, tight bathrooms, and other hazards that may cost a fortune to retrofit.

Enter the Wheel Pad. Designed as a temporary extension of an existing house, the Wheel Pad has a bedroom and bathroom with ADA-standard clearances, a Hoyer lift track built into the ceiling, an entry ramp, and a door to connect the unit to an adjacent house. All this comes in an ultramodern 200-square-foot package on wheels. It’s a novel use of the tiny house concept, and in hindsight a pretty obvious one. Why did it take so long for someone to market this?

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Inside the prototype Wheel Pad. Note the Hoyer lift track built into the ceiling.

That “someone” is a group of architecture students and professors at Norwich University. The prototype Wheel Pad went to a southern Vermont woman who recently became paralyzed from the chest down, and future units will be sold for $60,000 or leased for $3000/month. Since a unit is highway legal, it qualifies as an RV for zoning purposes. A septic tank is built in; water and electrical supply come from the existing house.

Physical access to the existing house is unclear, although the Wheel Pad website says illustrations are available for buyers. Can the entire unit be lifted higher or lower to match an existing door, or must a driveway be built to the correct height? (Settlement could make the latter pretty untenable for long-term accommodation.)

Tiny Tuesday: SHEDsistence

Samantha and Robert are outdoor enthusiasts – so they simplified their lives to maximize the time they can spend in the mountains. They pared their belongings down to fit inside a 204-square-foot house on wheels, which they call SHED. The name is a play on words: not only is the house about the size of a shed, but any item that’s not essential to their outdoor pursuits in the Pacific Northwest is an item the couple has shed from their lives.

I love the modern styling of the house, both outside and in. A simple roofline has the right proportions for a space this size; I never cared for the tiny houses that jack up the roof with dormers all over. A diagonally recessed entry lends aesthetic interest to the broad side and makes the building look like a home. Looking at the front door, the house could be 80 feet deep or 10. Built-in seating and storage indoors make the place feel spacious and bright.

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SHED main living space.

Here are a few notes from the blog of the builders/owners: “We employed some unique construction techniques including the use of 2×3 framing with continuous exterior insulation that results in a lighter wall with superior thermal performance.” “You may be surprised to hear that our design gives up 24 square feet (of our 204 sf total) for a special, externally accessible “gear room” to hold all of our outdoor gear, which we consider essential tools to our health and happiness.” “There are a lot of beautiful and amazing tiny houses out there, but your favorite will always be the one you built with your own hands!”

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Samantha and Robert show off their outdoor stuff. Between the car and the SHED, everything fits.

Tiny Tuesday: What Makes a Passive House?

The goal of a passive house is to perform its mechanical functions passively – with as little energy input as possible. This approach to homebuilding minimizes a house’s ongoing impact on the environment, which is one way to live a tinier life. Here are the five principles that govern passive house design.

1. Insulation. A building envelope with high R-values all the way around keeps the indoor temperature constant, so it doesn’t fluctuate with the temperature outside.

2. Windows. Usually the weak points of a building envelope, windows in a passive house are typically triple-glazed. They’re positioned to maximize sunlight in cold months and minimize it in hot months.

3. Ventilation and heat recovery. A ventilation system provides continuous fresh air year-round. A heat recovery system transfers thermal energy from the outgoing air to the incoming air, preserving that all-important indoor temperature.

4. Air tightness. The building envelope has no punctures where air could leak. Even accidental nail holes are caulked closed during construction.

5. Full thermal break. Weak points where heat can transfer through the building envelope, such as continuous window sills, are known as thermal bridges. These are eliminated to maximize the effectiveness of insulation. A full thermal break between inside and outside also prevents moisture accumulation and protects against mold.

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A new passive house built by Shelterwood in Waitsfield, Vermont.

Some Passive House principles seem backwards at first glance. Doesn’t a ventilation system require energy to operate, while a drafty wall lets air pass through for free? My answer: ventilation doesn’t exist in a vacuum. (That’s an amusing tautology!) A drafty wall lets in so many things other than air – heat or cold, moisture, unwanted breeze – that a sealed house is considerably more efficient to operate. Up to 90% more efficient, if the Passive House Institute is to be believed.

Also, the thick insulation and HVAC systems only have a job to do when the air outside is radically different from room temperature. If you live in a passive house and you want to enjoy a mild spring day, it’s OK to open the windows!