The City of Vancouver caused quite a stir recently when it approved a series of new building code regulations that, among things, requires new home builders to install lever handles rather than doorknobs.
Other accessibility features in the new regulations include mandates for wider doorways, stairs and hallways; easy-to-reach switches; lower drain pipes so counters can easily be lowered, lever faucets on sinks and reinforced bathroom walls so grab bars can easily be installed.
But the measure that has most people talking is the decision to eliminate door knobs in new home construction. The bylaw is not retroactive, so homeowners of existing homes don't have to replace their doorknobs.
"Building for accessibility is an important part of being an inclusive city," says the City of Vancouver's website. "Over 15 per cent of Vancouver residents have some form of physical disability or mobility restriction. This includes people using wheelchairs, walkers, canes and strollers. When you add their accompanying family and friends, approximately 50 per cent of Vancouver residents are affected by poor access to buildings."
The site says lever-operated door handles are "easy to use with only one hand and do not require any tight grasping or wrist twisting."
The idea behind accessible housing is that it's built so anyone can live there, regards of their disability. "The great thing about all these measures - structural and practical - is they benefit everyone. No one is really inconvenienced when doorknobs give way to door handles, or when steps are replaced with ramps," writes André Picard in the Globe & Mail.
But Picard says the building code change "has made the city the butt of many a quip, from the ubiquitous knock-knock jokes through to the snarky comments about bureaucracy run amok."
An example is in the reader's comments section of a National Post story about the move:
"The only real knobs in Vancouver are the twits who proposed and passed this bylaw. Good grief, does this government have to interfere everywhere?"
Another joker writes, "Lever handles are great - until some doorknob installs one backwards."
Levers make it easier to open a door, but there's also concern that it's a little too easy for small children to open when they shouldn't. Making the rounds on the Internet is this video of a rather nasty-looking snake opening a lever handle to enter a room. Another common complaint about levers is that clothing can easily get snagged on them.
Those concerned about heritage preservation of older buildings were unhappy to find out that the original Art Deco doorknobs at Vancouver City Hall were replaced with generic levers.
And the National Post's Jesse Kline wrote that "if the government is going to make it its business to ensure that all homes are accessible - just in case a future owner needs these features and is too lazy to install them himself - why not mandate light-switch panels, walk-in bathtubs and elevators instead of stairs? Kline says every new regulation adds to the cost of a new home, making Vancouver housing - already the most expensive in Canada - even more unaffordable.
Vancouver Sun writer Jeff Lee says in his blog that his story about the death of the doorknob "touched a lot of nerves. I received more emails in two days about this simple change to lever handles than I have on many subjects. The doorknob may be a utilitarian piece of equipment, but the responses showed how important it is to our lives and how people view any attempt to mess around with it."
Vancouver is the only city in Canada that has its own building code. There is a National Building Code in Canada and several provinces have their own codes as well. Some of the Vancouver regulations may eventually find their way to the provincial and national codes, which are constantly being updated and reviewed.
One of the other ground-breaking building code changes allows building owners the option of installing gender-neutral washrooms. This is another first for Canada. The washrooms would include increased security measures, such as specific requirements about door locks.
New homes and condominiums will also be required to have plug-ins for electric cars. Previous regulations mandated low-flush toilets and banned traditional wood-burning fireplaces as part of Vancouver's Greenest City 2020 project. The initiative's goals are for all new buildings constructed from 2020 onward to be carbon neutral, and for energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in existing buildings to be reduced by 20 per cent over 2007 levels by 2020. The plan was recently recognized by the World Green Building Council as the "Best Green Building Policy".