Volunteer work: good for the community and good for the soul
One of my first memories, in the early 1930s, when I was 4 or 5 years old, was of our mother taking care of a neighbor woman, Eula Hughbanks, who had tuberculosis. TB was more common in those days, with little hope for a cure, especially for poor people. The nearest medical care of any kind was 30 miles away. Such care might as well have been on the other side of the world for most of us, as few had an automobile. So people did what people have always done, especially in hard times—they took care of one another.
Our mother took her friend food—liquid soups mainly—and helped her to bathe and wash her hair. It takes some time to die of TB, so this caring went on for several years, if I recall correctly. The winters were long and hard in Western Nebraska. Snow, along with killer winds, often arrived in September and didn’t leave the ground until April or May. When summer came with blessed sunshine, people would take our mother’s friend outside to soak up a bit of those warm and healing rays.
Of course, no one had a wheelchair, but the men had built a simple ramp to make it easier to carry her from her bed in the house to a rocking chair set out in the yard. I can still recall her smile as the heat soaked into what was left of her body. She was, as they say, “as thin as a rail.” I can’t help but wish I had a picture of not only her, but also of that primitive ramp made from weather-worn boards.
No one had money to buy real materials. The nails used to fasten boards together came from a burned out house nearby. Most everyone in that town of 85 inhabitants, including me, used to sort through those ashes looking for nails. Many of the nails were the old, square kind that, once found, were straightened and reused.
So guess what? Here I am, in 2009, building ramps for wheelchair-bound poor people with debilitating illnesses or injuries who want to get out of their house now and then. Think about how good it feels for folks in a wheelchair to be able to exit their home, sit in their yard, soak up some sunshine, or even go to the medical clinic or to the grocery store when they want to. Being able to get out of our house is something most of us take for granted. Not so for those confined to a wheelchair.
Government programs can help
Fortunately, these days we don’t have to beg for some used boards and found nails to construct a decent ramp. Here in the state of Oregon (and other states), there is a program that offers up to $1,000 (every two years) for people on Medicaid who have special needs. These needs can be anything from helping them obtain certain foods, installing grab bars, widening doorways, or building wheelchair ramps. Here on the coast, we use the money for materials and do the construction with volunteer workers.
Most states offer a program to help keep disabled persons in their home because it saves them thousands of dollars. There is a big difference in cost between keeping a person in their home and putting them into a caregiving or assisted living facility.
Before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, little or no thought was given to the civil rights of people with disabilities. I have helped build literally thousands of apartments where the bathroom was fitted with a 24-in. door. Try getting a 27-in.-wide (minimum) wheelchair through a 24-in. doorway. Disabled people do have the right to get to the bathroom, no? They also have a right to be able to get out of their houses and into office buildings, shopping centers, hospitals, schools, and recreational facilities. Spend just one day in a wheelchair and you will understand why the Disabilities Act is so important to wheelchair-bound people.
According to Wikipedia, Americans with disabilities are one of the largest minority groups in the United States. About 1 in 5 of us living here has some kind of a disability, and 1 in 10 has a severe disability. Around 9 million people of all ages are disabled to the point of needing personal assistance for everyday activities. And there is somewhere near 1,600,000 people (including my oldest sister, along with many vets returning from Iraq & Afghanistan) who are confined to a wheelchair. I’m still swinging a hammer, but I’m 78, so who knows? It’s probably not many years before I will need a ramp, too!
Permanent and Temporary Ramps
Many of the ramps that I have helped build are somewhat temporary, especially the ones we build for people under Hospice care. The average lifespan of a household ramp, so I have read, is 5 or 6 years. Once a ramp is no longer needed, it can be torn apart and the materials recycled.
Some people with disabilities spend their entire life confined to a wheelchair. I was once in graduate school with a young man who had a spinal injury from a car accident when he was 9 years old. He lived in a house with a strong, permanent ramp, along with a kitchen and bath that he could easily use. He even had an accessible automobile which allowed him to drive and live a pretty normal life.
Other people, like my mother, often spend the last years of their lives is a wheelchair. We built a safe, reliable ramp for her when she was living with my sister, Loretta, in Sacramento. It was a well-built ramp, but we knew that there was no need to build a permanent one. She used it for about 3 years before she died.
The differences between a permanent ramp and one that will be needed for only a few years are not many. Both need to be built structurally strong. On a “temporary” ramp, there is no need to sink the 4×4 posts that hold the joists and handrails into the ground and pour concrete around them. We set our posts on concrete blocks. If you pour concrete footings for this structure in a cold part of the country, the footings should go below the frost line. This can be up to 4 ft. deep.
Using treated lumber allows us, when necessary, to place the wood in contact with the ground. Treated wood, in most areas, will last for many years in this mode. Otherwise, most codes won’t allow any wood to be closer than 6 in. to the earth.
Lastly, we put the majority of the structure together with screws that are easy to remove. Some screws, especially those that can rust, are next to impossible to remove.
Follow your building code
Rules for building a safe and stable ramp vary some from state to state and city to city. So be sure to check with your local building department before undertaking a project. The code for building a residential ramp can also be quite different from that used when building a ramp going into a public building.
In some ways there is no standard way to build a ramp. Much depends on the lot size and shape, and also the height of the entryway. At times, it may be best to build the ramp in the backyard rather than the front.
Ramp angle or slope
For ease of access, and to meet ADA Guidelines (Americans with Disabilities Act), the maximum slope of a ramp can not exceed 1 in. for every 12 in. of run.
So, if a ramp needs to rise 14 in. to the entryway of a house, it will have to be 14 ft. long to maintain the proper slope. But at just under a 5 degree pitch, even a 1-in. rise over a 12-in. run is a bit steep—imagine the last time your truck climbed a 5 degree hill, fully loaded. Try wheeling or pushing a wheelchair up anything steeper, and see how hard it is.
Some people might need a ramp with an even more gradual slope. We built a ramp for an older couple that had a 1-in. rise for every 20 in. of run. She was able to push her husband up that slope with ease. That’s why the ADA suggests lower slopes for ramps whenever possible. According to their guidelines (A4.8.2): “Ramp slopes between 1:16 and 1:20 are preferred. The ability to manage an incline is related to both its slope and its length. Wheelchair users with disabilities affecting their arms or with low stamina have serious difficulty using inclines. Most ambulatory people and most people who use wheelchairs can manage a slope of 1:16. Many people cannot manage a slope of 1:12 for 30 ft (9 m).”
In fact, if you read the ADA Guidelines, you might find the discussion of slope a little confusing, especially where it concerns maximum rise and maximum run. According to the guidelines, “If the slope of a ramp is between 1:12 and 1:16, the maximum rise shall be 30 inches (760 mm) and the maximum horizontal run shall be 30 feet (9 m). If the slope of the ramp is between 1:16 and 1:20, the maximum rise shall be 30 inches (760 mm) and the maximum horizontal run shall be 40 feet” (4.8.2).
The point of the guidelines is simple: the maximum allowable rise is 30 inches, but the maximum run is limited, too: you don’t want to force someone in a wheelchair to push themselves up a long steep hill, so steeper ramps must also be shorter, but in no case can you exceed a 40 ft. ramp.
Landing and Ramp Sizes
The width of the ramp needs to be at least 36 in. clear between handrails, so we make our ramps 48 in. wide. This seems best because it fully utilizes lumber that comes in 4 ft. multiples, which means less material waste.
ADA guidelines require level landings at the top and bottom that are at least 36 in. wide, though in some cases they have to be 42 in. wide, or even wider for swing-out doors. Landings must also be the width of the ramp leading to the landing. With 48-in. ramps and 48-in.-wide landings, we meet almost all ADA guidelines for landings. Landings also have to be 60 in. long. And every time you make a turn, like in an “L” or “U” shaped ramp, you need to build a 60 in. by 60 in. landing.
Handrails and materials
Handrails for ramps with more than a 6-in. rise are needed on each side with a height between 34 in. and 38 in. Some codes call for an intermediate rail at 18 in. Further, the ADA requires a 2 in. (minimum) curb at the bottom to keep a wheel from dropping off the edge.
And finally, ramps need to be stable, firm, and slip-resistant. Here in wet, coastal Oregon, we use pressure-treated, rot-resistant, 2x wood. You can also use composite or PVC decking. This stable material won’t rot, but it is usually about twice the cost of treated wood.
Coastal Oregon gets 60 in. annual rainfall. Even without abundant rain or snow, it is not a good idea to use plywood for the decking unless you cover it with a slip-resistant material. Here on the coast, we use pressure-treated wood for the deck, but we still often finish it by rolling out 30-in.-wide, heavy, sand-coated roofing material. This is especially important when there is a danger that someone pushing a wheelchair might slip.
Most ramps are built outside, where they are exposed to all kinds of weather. To keep the wood from deteriorating rapidly, we use wood (labeled ACQ) that has been pressure-treated (solution forced into the cell structure of wood) with a fungicide (copper) and an insecticide (quaternary ammonium). The A stands for alkaline.
Because of the high content of copper in this wood, you should not use ordinary steel nails and hangers to fasten this wood in place. Copper can cause steel to corrode rather rapidly—especially in wet conditions—and weaken the entire structure. Best to use either hot-dipped galvanized or stainless steel fasteners, bolts, washers, nails, and screws.
Also, we recommended that you wear gloves when working with this material, given that chemicals on your hands can, and do, enter into your body. And who is to say what kind of health problems a fungicide and an insecticide will cause in the future?
I prefer building ramps when there is at least a slight breeze blowing. This keeps the sawdust on the move. Otherwise, wear a dust mask to keep from breathing any particulates. It’s not a good idea to burn this wood, either. Dispose of it properly, not in an ordinary landfill where the chemicals can leach out into the ground water.
Building the Upper Landing
The landing can be 1/2 in. lower than the level of the house floor. If you are using 2x boards (1 1/2 in.) for the decking, drop the ledger board that holds the landing joists down 2 in. below the house floor.
This ledger board needs to be securely attached to the house, because it is a main support for the landing. If possible, I like to bolt or lag this board through the rim joist about every 16 in. using 1/2-in. galvanized carriage bolts. If it’s not possible to use bolts, you can support it with posts set on concrete blocks.
Often there is an existing concrete landing, or steps, coming out of the house. You can use this to support the upper wheelchair landing. Besides the ramp, you may need to build an additional set of steps to replace the ones you covered (see photo, right).
The landing is just a basic square or rectangle built level with joists to carry the deck sheathing.
For a 60-in. x 60-in. landing, cut the joists 57 in. long. I like to hang these joists off the ledger and from the rim joist by using metal hangers. With 2x decking, the joists can be located every 32 in. on center, maximum.
The length of the ramp will determine the length of the joists that will carry the sloped part. If, for example, the height to the entryway is 15 in. you can use 16-ft. 2×6 joists. For our 4-ft. wide ramp, I used three joists attached to the landing by metal hangers or pressure blocks (solid blocking between the joists).
L or U Shaped Ramps
Sometimes, because of space limitations, a ramp has to change directions or double back on itself. To meet ADA guidelines, these “turning”landings must be 60 in. x 60 in. so a turn can be made easily and safely. I support turning landings with 4×4 posts just like the upper landing. Once the landings are in place, joists can be attached to continue the ramp in a new direction.
Sheathing the Decks and Ramp
I buy 16-ft. 2×6 stock and cut it into lengths that will fit the landings and 4-ft. wide ramp. I screw these in place using easy-to-drive and easy-to-remove screws. When I’m working in the summer, and the boards are dry (that’s rare for Oregon!), I leave about a 1/4-in. gap between the boards to allow room for expansion when they take on winter moisture (see TiC’s recent moisture content article). That gap allows rain water, dirt and debris to pass through, too. A carpenter’s flat pencil makes a good gauge. If the boards are wet, I leave a smaller gap.
On the last decking board, especially when the ramp ends on concrete, I cut a long bevel. This can be done on a table saw, and allows easy access for a wheelchair. When the ramp ends on earth, the last board can be level with the ground.
|I use 2×6 or 2×8 stock for the bottom curb that keeps a wheel from slipping over the side. This stock is cut to length and held about 3 in. above the deck on both sides. I screw it securely in place to the ramp joists.|
I use 2×6 stock for the top rail. The posts are cut to length at 34 in. with a slope on top so rain will drip off and decrease the chance they will rot. I turn the 2×6 rail on edge and let it stick up past the post top at least 2 in. This provides a handhold for anyone walking or pushing a wheelchair on the ramp.
When necessary, I split 2x6s with a saw and run them as 2x3s at 18 in. off the deck for a middle rail.
Slip Proof Ramps
If you live in a rainy area, like we do, or in a snowy part of the country, it is advisable to put down a slip-resistant material. I often use good-quality rolled roofing that has a sand finish on. I nail this down with roofing nails. If you have access to outdoor carpeting, this also works well.
Smiles all around
I started helping to frame tract houses in the San Fernando Valley in 1950. Those houses were mainly for WWII vets returning from a bloody war. They wanted to settle down, find a job, and raise a family. Build houses we did—row after endless row of simple, solid, well-built houses. As a young man, I felt good to be involved in the mass realignment of America. But even at the time, I felt uneasy about one aspect of this monumental task.
I was born in 1931, in an isolated rural area in W. Nebraska, where the one constant was the wind howling down from Canada across the plains, chilling me to the bone. This was time of the Great Depression. People were poor. Like the old saying goes: “We used wallpaper not for decoration, but for insulation.” We looked at new clothes in the Sears catalog before relegating it to the two-holer not far from the house.
We survived those times because people in the area helped each other. As I said at the start of this article, one of my first memories is going with my mother, carrying food to a hungry family whose mother was bed-ridden with TB. As a boy, I often had the task of shoveling snow and making a path from a neighbor’s house to their windmill so they could get water. I was chopping wood for others before I was 8 years old. That’s what we did.
A Buddhist teacher I know says, “If you want to be unhappy, think of yourself. If you want to be happy, think of others.”
I have had the good fortune to sit at the bedside of people as they were dying. Never once did I hear someone say: “Oh, how I wished I would have spent more time at the office.” Dying people have taught me a lot about the meaning of life.
These days, at age 78, I am still doing what my mother and father taught me: to serve others. I find real joy in helping others by building Habitat houses for people who otherwise could never dream of owning their own home, by doing hospice work installing grab bars, and building ramps. The process is always rewarding, but so is the finish.
I always take time at the end of the job to appreciate how grateful a wheelchair-bound person is for the work I’ve done. Ramps provide freedom to the handicapped, and allow them to fulfill their dreams, to venture out into a world that the rest of us access without a thought.
I don’t have to wait for an eternal reward when doing these things. The immediate reward comes from grateful people.
What about you?
(Photos by Don Blom)
[Editor's note: To learn more from an icon of carpentry, visit Larry's blog, "A Carpenter's View," on Fine Homebuilding's website.]
Why am I here?
Out of the blue it came to me, just like the old ones said it would. Solutions to matters of import are seldom found in mathematical equations. They come straight out of the blue. Not a great matter for you, maybe, but I wanted to know: Why I am here? What’s my purpose on this bright planet? Why have I been studying, raising children, building houses, teaching students, and writing books? Surely there is a grand scheme to all this toil.
Those who know me remember that I came off the high, short-grass prairies, where the only constant is the Wyoming wind. There was never a question about whether the wind was blowing or not. Rather, it was about how hard and how cold it blows, coming down across those snow-covered, sagebrush hills. A few old ones still live there, but these days they have warm clothes and warm houses.
I was born in the early ’30s, in an uninsulated rural farmhouse without central heating, wool socks, or goose-down comforters. Three feet away from that iron kitchen stove and you were freezing. Whatever the temperature was outside, that was the temperature in our bedrooms, even when mother warmed the sheets with her flat iron. For the eighteen years I lived there, my strongest memory is that I was always cold. Sure, we had those summer days. I would huddle on the lee side of our house and try to warm my deepest parts. The chill never left.
So I headed out the day high school ended without bothering to attend graduation. The old ones said: “Go south.” I went south. And south was a dreamland where the sun shone almost every day. Some years we saw morning frost two or three times. Snow was something you could go visit, miles away, if you wanted. I could feel myself thawing, partially.
I started at the university. I became a carpenter, a navy man, a teacher, a husband, a father, a gardener, a writer. But the cold was always there, peering from its home base, waiting for its chance to inhabit me again and again. Even as I sit here writing, I can feel the chill in my feet. Long, lean, and hungry-looking I am, not much natural insulation on these bones, growing older daily. By the time blood is pumped from my heart down through my long body to my toes it has cooled considerably. Take the guard down for a minute and there will be icicles on my nose.
So that’s what came to me in the gap. I realized that all my efforts, all my struggles, the reason for my existence, has been to do whatever was necessary to keep myself warm. As an old one, I tell this to you.
Larry Haun (Written on a warm September day in 2009).