Killer Bungalows

Small Home Gazette, Fall 2002

Are bungalows killing people?

Many of us spend a good deal of time touting the benefits of bungalow living-well-designed floorplans, beautiful woodwork and lots of charm, to name a few. There are, however, certain aspects that can make bungalows inconvenient such as small closets and kitchens. But now there’s a feature common to bungalows and other old houses that can lead to serious injury or even death-a steep stairway with a door at the bottom. No need to put your bungalow on the market just yet, though. There’s an easy solution to the problem. Read on.

Twin Cities Bungalow Club board member Mary Reichardt recently had new concrete steps poured at her house. The building inspector approved the project but also pointed out something rather alarming about her house. He told Mary of seeing coroner’s reports that included statistics on the substantial number of deaths and injuries that occur when people–the elderly and children are most vulnerable-fall down the stairs coming from the second floor and are trapped against the door at the bottom.

Any of you who have such a stairway can picture the problem—-the stairs end right at the doorway. When the door is closed and latched, a deep “well” of sorts is created by the door and the last few steps. Anyone who falls in can be in serious trouble, especially if he or she is injured in the fall. Suffocation can occur if the victim falls head-first and is doubled over. Even if the victim can reach the doorknob, it can be difficult to open since it is round and hard to grip and because the person’s weight is pressed against the door.

Fortunately, there’s an easy fix—-at least one that will eliminate the chance of being trapped in the “well.” Remove the spring-loaded “tongue” of the latch-the part that clicks into the hole in the strike plate on the door frame. You don’t have to remove the entire doorknob and latch mechanism, just the tongue protrusion. The door will then push open easily. If it has a tendency to swing open with drafts, you can install something that will hold it shut but will release easily. A flat magnet latch would work well.

The city inspector suggested other solutions such as replacing the inside doorknob with a lever-type handle. This would be easier to grip but wouldn’t help if you were unable to reach it because of injury. Besides, a lever handle would look out of place with the rest of the home’s classic hardware.

Another solution is to remove the door altogether and store it in the basement (future homeowners may want to put it back), but it is nice to be able to close the door sometimes for practical and aesthetic reasons.

There’s no doubt that stairways to the second floor of some bungalows are very steep, and we’ve all felt that rush of vertigo when approaching the first step from above. This design was necessary to keep the footprint of the home as compact as possible. They work fine for able-bodied persons.
If you finish off your expansion area for living space, most stairways can be grandfathered in under current building codes, as long as the treads are at least 30 inches wide. Of course, you’re also required by code to have a sturdy handrail.

Use common sense. Very young or old occupants should be given bedrooms on the main floor of the house. That’s one of the beauties of the bungalow. Most of the living space is on one level.