Elfant Wissahickon-Chestnut Hill
The Larry DiFranco Team, Elfant Wissahickon Realtors
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Accessibility: Pier and Beam May Be More Appropriate Than You Think

by The Larry DiFranco Team, Elfant Wissahickon Realtors 11/14/2021

Photo by 1778011 from Pixabay

Although concrete walls and slabs rank among the most popular types of foundations, the vast majority of new construction relied on pier and beam designs until the 1960s. Pier and beam, commonly called as “post and beam,” was viewed as the most effective and cost-efficient way to elevate a structure above grade.

In many parts of the country, pier and beam designs remain the preferred method. But the question contractors may need answered is whether pier and beam foundations are the right choice for accessibility.

What Conditions Favor Pier & Beam Foundations?

A pier and beam foundation can be employed for a wide range of reasons. But there are at least two environmental conditions that make them preferable to concrete basements and slabs. These include areas that are prone to water swells and unstable soil conditions.

If you have ever driven along the coast, you’ll see many homes elevated on pier and beam foundations. The reason for that construction element is not just to improve picturesque views. The primary reasons for elevated homes stem from coastal flooding due to sea surges and severe weather, such as hurricanes and tropical storms. This same reasoning applies inland, where rivers and creeks may overflow and cause flooding. In some cases, hard ground conditions lead to puddling that would flood a basement. In essence, new construction homes are elevated above the high-water mark using pier and beam foundations.

The second most common reason to employ a pier and beam design is clay being close to the surface. Clay presents a risk to the structural integrity of concrete footings under walled basements. It also increases the likelihood a slab will crack. Although a layer of clay a few feet below grade may seem hard-packed and reliable, the material shifts. When that occurs, the damage done to new concrete slabs can be substantial. 

How Do Pier & Beam Homes Accommodate Accessibility?

While many coastal homes are elevated high enough to park a vehicle underneath, those comprise only a fraction of pier and beam construction. It may come as something of a surprise, but big states such as Texas, Colorado and North Carolina, among others, leverage this type of foundation due to soil and flooding conditions. Only a few feet may elevate inland homes, most times. In terms of people who use wheelchairs, walkers or have physical challenges, there are several ways to make new construction homes accessible.

  • Elevators: Coastal homes and beachfront communities typically use pier and beam building methods to achieve heights over eight feet. This makes them prime structures to include wheelchair accessible elevators. These products can be installed directly under the home to transport people up and down. This also allows people to park vehicles under the structure out of inclement weather. Homeowners who are not physically challenged generally like the convenience of transporting groceries and small children without having to negotiate stairs.
  • Wheelchair Lifts: When pier and beam construction raises a home by only a few feet, wheelchair lifts are a commonsense solution. They can be positioned inside an attached garage on grade for increased accessibility and safety.
  • Ramps: Pier and beam construction does not necessarily mean the living space is higher than a home with a slab or walled basement. Many new construction projects leverage this design element to overcome soil conditions. That means ramps remain an effective accessibility option.

The decision to build a home or commercial building on a pier and beam foundation does not have to detract from accessibility. Structures at low elevations can accommodate the same ramps and wheelchair lifts as those using other foundation types. Homebuyers that want ocean views will probably gravitate to accessible elevators as an added value and one that increases leisure enjoyment into their golden years.