Designing Composite Decks with Ramps That the Disabled Can Use Comfortably

A composite deck with ramp

Composite decking can be a better material for accessibility ramps than concrete.

When I worked at the Canaveral National Seashore, we built boardwalks over the dune so visitors could visit the beach without treading the plants of the dune underfoot. These also provided a human-free underpass for the local wildlife. Every third one of these boardwalks had to be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), so if the first boardwalk on the beach was ADA compliant, the next two would have stairs only, and the third would be equipped with a ramp. This pattern tended to put the ramps at the highest points of the dune, and made creating the gentle slope required by law a bit of a challenge.

Still, it should give heart to those who find themselves with the need to build a deck or decks with ramps in order to accommodate a disabled friend or family member. Even if a home is designed or situated in a way that makes it difficult to build a ramp, the techniques and materials used to create decks can be adapted to make a ramp that’s usable for a disabled person. Property managers who find themselves needing to comply with the ADA may wish to consider using more flexible deck construction techniques instead of expensive concrete.

Disability Building Regulations for Ramps

In the United States there are two codes that govern disability access. The first of these is the Americans with Disabilities Act, and it applies to all public spaces, whether they be commercial or residential. What this means as far as residences go is that the public areas of an apartment building, like the pool, clubhouse, and the rest, need to be accessible to someone whose mobility is impaired. Individual dwellings don’t have to be built with accessibility in mind, but a certain number of them need to be adaptable with a simple modification. The accommodations that a property owner is expected to make are further clarified in the later Fair Housing Act.

If you own a private home or older apartment you may notice that neither one of these acts applies specifically to you. The ADA does matter to you, though, if you need to accommodate a tenant, friend, or a family member that is or has become disabled. The ADA lays out the requirements for wheelchair accessibility, and if you need to build a ramp it should comply with these specifications. The relevant measurements as of 2010 are:

  • Slopes cannot be greater than 1:12. This means that the angle of the ramp can only rise a vertical distance of a foot over 12 inches. This is a gentle slope that manual and power wheelchairs can climb without causing undue fatigue to the person in the wheelchair or to its motor. It is possible to make the slope gentler, but it cannot be any steeper than 1:12.
  • The rise, or the total height of an individual section of ramp, can be no more than 30 inches. This is to prevent a disabled person who cannot continue climbing the ramp, and cannot engage the brake, from building up enough velocity rolling backwards to do them harm before they are stopped by the structure.
  • Landings must be at least as wide as the ramp, and at least 60 inches in length. If the construction of the ramp requires a turn, then the landing will need to be 60 inches wide as well.
  • The width of the ramp needs to be at least 36 inches from guard to guard. The regulation does not refer to the overall width of the ramp but the width from railing to railing. For typical deck railings plus an attached handrail low enough for someone in a wheelchair to grab, the overall width of the ramp will be approximately 40 inches.

The regulations laid out by the ADA are close to universal. Canada, for instance, lacks an equivalent piece of national legislation, but lays out regulations in the Canadian National Building Code which are very similar with regards to slope, width, and rise. There are differences in the landing requirements, and while Canada doesn’t have a direct national equivalent to the ADA, some of the provinces do, so builders should check with their local offices for the laws that apply in their areas.

Building a Ramp Using Deck Construction Techniques

Building a ramp with deck materials is simple. At the beach where I worked they were simply four-by-four posts with two two-by-six joists bolted directly onto either side of the post. A four-by-four was laid across the two-by-sixes at the sides and middle and the deck boards were attached to these four-by-fours.

These boardwalks were made for two-way traffic, and the simple construction supported a sloping deck that was 72 inches wide for months in an incredibly hostile environment. We did have to do regular maintenance to remove badly warped wooden boards and keep the surface smooth. And, in order to keep people who used wheelchairs from grabbing a fistful of splinters, we used long-lasting composites to provide a lower railing and capped the handrail with more composite for the same reason. This begs the question: why we didn’t surface the whole thing with composite and save ourselves some trouble?

Using Composite for Decks with Ramps

Due to the particular way it decays, especially along the ocean, wood seems prone to creating the large sort of splinters that can impale a hand. To minimize this, we used composites on the handrails. The reason we didn’t use it on the actual walking surface of the boardwalks is that it was first generation composite, which wasn’t nearly as good as modern composites. These composites had less rigidity and required more cross bracing than wood. They also became absurdly slippery when wet.

Higher-end modern composites have largely fixed this. They’re much more rigid, perform similarly to wood, and require about the same amount of bracing underneath to avoid noticeably flexing underfoot. Modern composite caps–the material bonded to the outside of the board to give extra protection from moisture–are designed to make decking slip-resistant and don’t suddenly send feet sliding when they’re wet anymore. Although they are heavier than wood, they perform much better and don’t degrade as quickly as wood does. For all these reasons, high-quality composites make great decking for a beach house, especially an ADA-compliant one. These composites don’t warp, so the boards don’t have to be replaced to allow wheelchairs to roll smoothly. This makes it ideal for a wheelchair-accessible ramp on a private home when a concrete one would be unattractive as well as too expensive. The low maintenance of composite is also a big plus for people who may not have the mobility to maintain their deck or ramp themselves.

There are composites and then there are composites, and for a disabled-access ramp, you’ll want to look for an extremely durable, dense board with a full, slip-resistant cap. One special brand of composite decking with these features is Infinity decking from Fortress Deck. A fully capped, slightly rubbery board helps ensure traction even in wet conditions, and using bamboo instead of wood by-products makes the board more resistant to moisture. All of these features make Infinity decking an excellent material for building an access ramp or a great-looking deck. Contact Fortress Deck to find out more about Infinity, and check out Fortress Building Products for other outdoor safety and building products.

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