The Ups and Downs of Elevators

Reprinted from PN April 2002

Adding Accessibility to this century-old home's second story has been well worth the challenges.

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PN Editor Cliff Crase's challenge was to convert his Rockland, Mich., childhood home into a more accessible and livable house. Besides some major renovations, the most obvious requirement was an elevator.

Early in 2001, the shaft was cut through the second-story floor, and we could for the moment enjoy a ceiling two stories high. By May the elevator was in, and we anxiously arrived at the home to step in and be whisked to the second floor, where we had relocated all the bedrooms.

In the June 2001 PN/Paraplegia News, the article "What's Up With Elevators?" described the challenges of and solutions to installing an elevator. The story promised a follow-up to show the finished product and comment on using the elevator.

While we did not expect the second article would be this delayed, it provided time for people to quiz us on various aspects of installation and allowed us to use the elevator over the summer and into winter. Because we are at the house for only a week or two every several months, a number of situations surfaced that even the elevator installer had not anticipated.

Even without help from daughter Victoria, Cliff can use the elevator. Photo by Nancy Crase.

How did we decide where to place the elevator? In looking at the floor plan of the house as it was before restoration, we initially thought to use a stair climber, a unit that follows the staircase's contours. Such units usually have a chair that runs on a track located on the staircase. The idea of using such a mechanism, while financially attractive, was quickly dismissed because it would require Cliff to transfer from his wheelchair to the chair and then back into a wheelchair at the top of the track. Although it was a priority to make the second floor accessible, I was adamant that since we were restoring this 100-year-old home to its original elegance, such a contraption didn't fit into the beautiful staircase. For this same reasoning, we also discarded the idea of an open elevator ascending up the center of the staircase.

Once we were convinced a closed self-contained elevator was essential, location became the next major question. Initially I thought of removing the back staircase in the laundry room and installing the shaft there. But our architect pointed out that a staircase is a complicated and expensive unit to just eliminate. In addition, a second staircase provides another exit in case of fire. These arguments and his ultimate plan clinched the location of the elevator to the master bedroom.

When Cliff's dad remodeled the upstairs into two apartments, the master bedroom—as were all the bedrooms on the first floor—was carved out of the house's traditionally public rooms. The first-floor bedrooms were for family use. The master bedroom was one of the smallest rooms on the first floor and matched a similar-size one directly above it.

This little room would house the elevator, and the remaining space would become what we dubbed "the elevator foyer." There also would be space for a powder room with equal area upstairs for a guest bathroom. The doorways into the elevator foyers would be enlarged. The doors were removed and the space widened to a four-foot opening to give both foyers a spacious feel as they adjoined the main foyer.

The elevator would require only a 12-inch space below the first floor, but the motor and hydraulic system needed a minimum 2x3x5-foot space at some location that could be easily accessible for maintenance. It could have been in a closet on the first or second floors, but with the bathrooms and foyers already taking the remaining area in the rooms, neither floor seemed appropriate.

Since the attic is easily accessed by a continuation of the staircase up to the third floor, and because the huge 1,200-square-foot area had plenty of room for the machinery, it appeared the perfect location. However, the elevator installer cautioned that the attic must be heated because the oil could condense if it became too cold, and it was possible the elevator would not stop accurately at each floor.

Since we didn't plan on being in Rockland much during the winter months, and as the attic had been recently insulated and was now considerably warmer, it seemed like the perfect location.

Working Out the Bugs
Before ordering the elevator, Tim Fehrenbach of Bach Mobilities, Inc., suggested an automatic elevator door instead of a manually closing one. This was a good idea, as a manual door is very awkward for a wheelchair user to open and close. The elevator also has exterior doors on the shaft to protect anyone from falling down the shaft if the elevator is not at that stop.

Our first use of the elevator was on Memorial Day weekend 2001. Fehrenbach had set the automatic door to close within five seconds of opening, which for any able-bodied user would be appropriate. However, Cliff had to reach and close the shaft door before the elevator would operate, and the timing on the inner automatic door was too quick to allow him to do this.

A quick call to Fehrenbach (whose company is in Escanaba, 120 miles from Rockland) relayed the problem, and he said the timing of the door could be extended or even changed so it wouldn't close until a floor was selected in the elevator. The latter suggestion was the perfect solution, which we tried out on our next visit, in July.

Once the elevator-door problem was solved, the difficulty in closing the shaft door was identified. As any wheelchair user knows, closing a door behind you, especially a 3-foot-wide one, is an awkward activity. Couple that with the narrow space in an elevator (even though ours was 4x5 feet) in which to turn around to close a door behind you, and you have a picture of the problem.

In addition, the door must latch before the elevator will operate, and for Cliff with his quadriplegic dexterity to turn doorknobs—particularly those that are architecturally appropriate for a 100-year-old house—did not make the job any easier.

The solution was tension latches that release with a good push or tug. Closing the door became easier with a decorative rope draped from one side to the other on the inside of the door.

By the time our July visit ended, it seemed the elevator installation was a success. We moved all the bedrooms to the second floor and moved forward in completing the remaining restoration. Not until December, when we decided to spend a week of the holiday season in snow country, did the mechanical equipment's location make a difference.

We arrived in Rockland at midnight after a 24-hour travel odyssey, having driven there from Minneapolis in the same weather system that dumped seven feet of snow on Buffalo. There was no snow in Rockland on Christmas Eve, but by December 26, three feet had stacked up.

Just before we left Phoenix, our caretaker called to let us know the elevator had quit operating. I suggested asking Fehrenbach to possibly talk him through the problem. But the situation was more serious, and Fehrenbach would have to look at it on the 26th, hours before our arrival.

Ultimately, after operating the elevator manually from controls at the equipment in the attic, Fehrenbach determined that the attic was so cold that the motor, which is submerged in the hydraulic fluid, could not handle the load of moving the now thick oil. Fortunately, the equipment comes with an oil heater, and after 24 hours the oil was warm enough to have the elevator operating smoothly.

Fehrenbach says the elevator is still in the shakedown stage, particularly since we do not use it for long periods of time and in all conditions. With each situation, we are becoming more attuned to how the elevator works, although its extensive computerized systems don?t allow us to handle every problem. Having a company nearby that can provide service is a must.

Fehrenbach also suggests that once all the bugs are worked out, we might want to set up a maintenance contract for annual elevator inspection. While this is a requirement for elevators in public locations, it is not for private homes.

The View From the Deck...
One of the first locations Cliff checked out once he had access to the second floor was the deck overlooking Rockland. From there you can survey the entire valley and enjoy the Porcupine Mountains 30 miles, featuring some of the best skiing in Michigan. The deck faces west, so the sunsets are some of the best, too.

Once sleeping in the roomy second-floor bedroom (16x18!), we wondered why we put off for so long the obvious benefit of having an elevator. It's been well worth the challenge.


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