Doorknobs to be banned in new Vancouver homes; could your city be next?

·National Affairs Contributor
Disney Research's new capacitive touch technology can make everyday objects like a doorknob touch-sensitive.

The humble doorknob is an endangered species in Vancouver.

Starting next March, newly constructed buildings can no longer be equipped with round knob thingees to open the doors. Only lever-type handles will be allowed.

The change was one of several passed by Vancouver's city council in September as part of its accessible-housing bylaw.

Vancouver, unlike other B.C. municipalities, has its own city charter that gives it the right to enforce its own building code on top of the provincial and national codes. It's the only city in Canada with that power.

The new bylaw includes a suite of changes to make new homes more accessible to people with disabilities and the elderly. Among other things, it will require developers to design in barrier-free or adaptable showers, wider doors, stairs and hallways, lower light switches and higher power outlets. Lever-type faucet handles will also be de rigueur.

But the lowly round doorknob's banishment seems to have caught people's imaginations. The Vancouver Sun report on the new rule has been widely blogged this week.

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The change doesn't apply to knobs in existing homes. If you're doing a renovation, you can still trot down to the DIY big-box store and pick up a round knob if you choose.

Sun columnist Jeff Lee noted that innovations launched in Vancouver often end up being adopted in building codes elsewhere in Canada.

We're getting used to changes driven by conservation, such as water-saving low-flush toilets, mandated in many building codes, and the transition from Edison-era incandescent light bulbs to fluorescent and LED lighting – though the Toronto Sun reports Ottawa's relaxed the rule so halogen incandescents will still be available.

But lever door-handles and other changes in the Vancouver code originate from a different imperative known as universal design, the Sun reported.

“Basically, the idea is that you try to make environments that are as universally usable by any part of the population,” Tim Stainton, a professor and director of the School of Social Work at the University of B.C., told the Sun.

“The old model was adaptation, or adapted design. You took a space and you adapted for use of the person with a disability. What universal design says is let’s turn it around and let’s just build everything so it is as usable by the largest segments of the population as possible.”

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A lot of what's in those thick building-code binders is invisible to us – things like firewall requirements, standards for plumbing and electrical wiring.

But the impact of Vancouver's accessibility changes will be very evident, changing the way new homes will look in the near future.

It makes me wonder what else could be done in the name of universal design. How about eliminating stairs altogether in favour of elevators or ramps?

And what about kitchen cabinets? Those top shelves are hard to reach if you're a creaky old boomer or just vertically challenged. Why not require all cabinets to be no higher than eye level?

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