Building a wheelchair ramp isn’t like most home improvement projects. Because its primary function is to ensure the safety of the user, you need to take extra care when making it.
On top of that, you also want to build a ramp that looks good outside the home and can stand up to the elements. All in all, there are several different features, considerations, and standards you must think over. It can quickly start to feel overwhelming.
Luckily, we’ve done all the research into every design consideration and safety feature you’ll need to build a ramp. With these 14 tips on how to build a wheelchair ramp, you can confidently make a safe and beautiful entryway for your loved one.
An Overview of Wheelchair Ramps
There’s a lot more to a wheelchair ramp than a simple incline from one point to another. You can’t expect to nail a couple of boards together and call the job finished.
Wheelchair ramps are actually fairly complex and have several different parts, all of which are necessary for the overall integrity of the structure.
Before we continue, it’s essential to know what these parts are. Here are a few of the main ones:
A run is the main sloped portion of the ramp. It goes up at an incline to get a person from a lower level to a higher one. Runs also should have texture, non-slip mats, or grit strips to prevent wheels from slipping or skidding.
Specific codes and standards dictate how steep a run can be, as you’ll see in the next section.
A landing is a flat, level place where a wheelchair can rest without any chance of rolling backward. Like runs, there are a few codes and standards that tell you what size landings need to be, where you need to place them, and how often you should put one in a ramp.
Most wheelchair ramps have bars that go up both sides of the run. They help keep ramp users steady, especially in wet or icy conditions. This is vital not only for the person in the wheelchair but for any person of any ability who uses the ramp.
Spindles are vertical posts placed at regular intervals that go up the sides of the run. They look like the protective railing you might see around a porch or balcony. Spindles protect users from falling over the edges of the ramp. They can also serve as a place to mount the handrail if another vertical surface (such as the side of a house) is not immediately available.
Tips on How to Build a Wheelchair Ramp
Planning a blueprint for your wheelchair ramp can be a lengthy and tedious process, but these tips outline all the standards you can’t afford to miss. There are also some alternative solutions that suit every skill level if you decide you don’t want to build one on your own.
1. Check your building codes
Your city or municipality government may have different rules that you must follow when creating a wheelchair ramp. Be sure to check with them before you even begin to plan the design of your wheelchair ramp. Some cities or regions may also require that you apply for a permit before getting to work.
Another thing to consider is your local homeowner’s association if you’re subject to one. Some neighborhoods have rules for what kinds of upgrades you can make to the appearance of your home, as it will affect the overall appearance of the street. Check with them to make sure the placement and materials you choose for your ramp are up to those standards.
2. Follow ADA recommendations
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) publishes a set of rules for designing structures that give people access to buildings. While these standards are only enforceable for public buildings, commercial facilities, or government facilities, they also provide excellent guidance for building a ramp to your private dwelling.
3. Don’t make it too steep
Now that you have your permit, codes, and standards in hand, you’re ready to start designing your ramp.
The first step is to figure out how long the ramp will need to be. You can do this by calculating the slope, or steepness of the ramp.
The ADA already did its own calculations and recommends a slope of no more than 1:12. This means that for every inch of height, there should be at least twelve inches of ramp length. For example, if you want to get onto a porch that is 30 inches tall, you’ll need to build a ramp that is 360 inches (or 30 feet) long.
4. Plan for landings
According to the ADA, a landing should be at the top and bottom of all ramps. In addition to being as wide as the ramp itself, landings should be at least 60 inches long.
Having a landing that is at least 60 inches long at the top of the ramp allows the person in the wheelchair to open the door and move back without rolling down the sloped area. You might also want to plan on some additional width in the case of doors that swing out.
The ADA also recommends that in situations where your ramp needs to be higher than 30 inches (for example, you have a porch that is 40 inches off the ground), you will need a landing partway through. After rising 30 inches in elevation, a landing offers a safe and level place for the wheelchair to rest before going up the remaining 10 inches of elevation.
You may decide to turn the ramp at the landing so that it forms a U shape. In this case, the landing will need to be double the width of the ramp as well as 60 inches in length. This gives someone enough space to pivot the wheelchair comfortably.
5. Give the ramp switchbacks
If your ramp is longer than you have space for, consider making a u-shaped ramp, or one that has switchbacks. This will allow you to build a ramp with a smaller footprint that will still be able to reach the height you need.
Ramps with switchbacks are also useful because they naturally include landings as required by the ADA for ramps over 30 inches tall.
6. Adjust the steepness in limited space
If you’ve run the numbers and can’t come up with a design that fits in the area you have for your ramp, the ADA offers two alternative slope ratios. These will allow you to build a ramp that suits the space you have.
The first alternative is to build a ramp that is ten inches long for every inch it is tall, but this only works when there are no more than six inches of height overall.
The other option is to build a ramp that is eight inches long for every inch it is tall. This is the steepest the ADA suggests, and you shouldn’t use it for anything taller than three inches.
7. Make it wide enough
Thirty-six inches is the accepted minimum width needed for the easy passage of a wheelchair. However, you’ll also need to add space on either side to account for the handrails.
Lowes recommends making the ramp at least 42 inches wide total. This gives you 36 inches for the wheelchair, then a 1.5-inch wide handrail and 1.5 inches of space between the handrail and whatever surface you plan to mount them on.
8. Add handrails and spindles
The ADA recommends that you install handrails if the height of the ramp is more than six inches. The top of the handrail will need to be between 34 and 38 inches above the surface of the ramp.
Any ramp that goes higher than 30 inches from the ground also requires spindles. These barriers help protect the wheelchair user from falling off the ramp. As a bonus, many wooden styles add a decorative touch and make the entrance of your home look more inviting.
9. Make handrails longer than you think
Handrails can’t simply start and end at the boundaries of the ramp. You’ll need to extend them at least twelve inches at the top and the bottom of the ramp. If there’s a landing or switchback in the middle of the ramp, handrails should extend continuously.
10. Add anti-slip properties
Any ramp that’s outside is bound to get wet, so it’s essential that you plan accordingly. Non-slip mats, grit strips, and other added textures should be applied to the surface of the ramp to prevent slipping and skidding.
11. Choose the right ramp material
There are a few different materials that you can use to build your ramp. Each has pros and cons, so keep these things in mind before making your final choice:
Concrete is the most permanent and low maintenance but also the most expensive ramp building material. However, you don’t have to buy additional non-skidding surfaces because you can brush an anti-slip texture into the concrete as it dries.
Due to its permanent nature, concrete isn’t ideal for most homes. If at any point you want to sell the house, the concrete ramp might decrease its curb appeal for potential buyers.
Wood is one of the most inexpensive options for building a ramp, but it requires more upkeep. You’ll need to protect the wood with a varnish or sealer. This will prevent rotting or warping, although a ramp that’s exposed to the elements may need to be touched up over time.
You’ll also need to add materials that will give the ramp anti-slip properties, such as grit strips.
Finally, it’s not easy to disassemble and move a wood ramp without investing serious time into the endeavor.
Aluminum is a common choice for ramps and handrails because of its corrosion-resistant properties. The downside is that it’s one of the pricier options.
Like wood, you’ll need to add something textured to prevent slipping and accidents. On its own, aluminum can be very slippery.
A final word of caution is that lightweight aluminum can bend under extreme stress. Double-check the weight requirements against the person who will be using the ramp before going forward.
Steel is another choice for building a wheelchair ramp, as it’s strong enough to hold up to 800 pounds. You can buy pre-made modular pieces that install quickly and easily outside your home. If you ever need to move the ramp, you can disassemble and move the pieces.
However, steel ramps aren’t as aesthetically pleasing as wooden ramps. Buying modular pieces painted with black powder coating not only increases their appearance but helps them withstand corrosion and rust.
12. Buy modular ramps
There are several ADA-compliant modular ramps available on the market. This means that you can buy a partially assembled ramp without having to figure out all the complicated measurements on your own. If you aren’t feeling confident about building your own ramp, this is a reliable option.
Another benefit of modular ramps is that you can reuse them. If you or your loved one moves to a new house, you can take apart the ramp, transport it, and install it at the new location. You can also resell the ramp if there comes a time when you don’t need it anymore.
13. Install a wheelchair elevator
Another option is not to build a ramp at all, but instead, install a wheelchair elevator or lift. This is a platform surrounded by short walls and a door that lifts the user up to the desired height.
While significantly more expensive than most ramps, an elevator can fit into a smaller space than a ramp can. Elevators are also useful for preserving the user’s independence. Even if the person has difficulty wheeling themselves up of a ramp, they’ll be able to operate an elevator on their own and with ease.
14. Hire a professional
If, after reading the above tips, you feel unable to build or install a ramp on your own, then look into hiring a local expert. It’s essential that whatever structure you erect is safe and durable enough to protect anyone who uses it, and paying a seasoned pro is one way to ensure that the job is done right.
Start Building a Wheelchair Ramp Today
By now, you should hopefully feel confident in knowing how to build a wheelchair ramp.
If you’re not sure you’re up to the task, remember that there are alternative solutions. You can buy a modular ramp, get a wheelchair elevator, or hire a professional to build a ramp for you.
In the end, as long as the wheelchair ramp is safe, there’s no wrong option for you and your loved one.
Featured image: Pixabay