The Accessible Home

By | 2017-01-13T20:43:12+00:00 February 1st, 2013|
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By Deborah Pierce

home213_1The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages and Abilities started as a question: What does it take to make a home where a person with disabilities can live a normal life?

It’s a question that families ask whenever injury or illness occurs. As an architect, I had upgraded many public buildings for access over the years and thought of myself as somewhat of an ADA expert when a new client posed this question at the start of our work together. One of her children had multiple disabilities — she was shy and dependent at home but gregarious and mobile at school. A normal life for this child would mean a chance to share in household chores, play with her siblings, keep up with her friends, and self-manage the activities of daily living.

In answering the question, I eventually did 25 case studies of people with a common desire — to live with ease and comfort in homes where their disabilities all but disappear. Their physical conditions varied in details but were somewhat similar, yet their homes couldn’t be more different — two-story houses and single-level ranches, old buildings and new, phased and all-at-once renovations, cold climates and temperate zones. Singles, couples, children and dogs. The houses reflect individual personalities and the lifestyles of family members, as well as the architectural character and regional
setting of each building.

The homes, while unique, also share many similarities. They are open, functional, and attractive. Taken together, the homes tell a compelling story about the current state of residential Universal Design — places that work for everyone. Each house has wide pathways linking activity centers — the openness of loft living with the intimacy of a traditional home. Each has a comfortable kitchen where cabinets are within easy reach and countertops can be used by a seated cook. Bathrooms are nice places to spend time, designed with low maintenance and safety in mind. Details are simple and
thoughtful — from appliance and hardware selections to locations of light switches.

home213_2Importance of Functional Design
What distinguishes the accessible home is the fact that each design choice appears to be made with the conscious intention to make living easier. It’s a lesson that can translate to all homes. Design can make it more pleasant to be in a space with a disability, but it takes an architect’s training and skill to see the big picture, and to convert problems into design opportunities, as the 35 homes featured in The Accessible Home illustrate

[25 case studies plus 10 more]. The most successful home modification projects are team efforts that utilize the expertise of each specialist.

At the center of this collaboration are the people living day-to-day with disabilities, as each activity of daily living is a crash course in learning how to do things differently. As one homeowner describes it, “Life is one big physics experiment,” with gravity an ongoing challenge. Here are the key lessons of accessible home design, as gleaned from those whose houses are
described in this book.

Choose Useability First
“Useability” is the real test of an accessible feature or place — can it be used by those who need it? Does a window put the view at eye level for someone who uses a chair for mobility? Is there space for transferring from a power chair while charging batteries? Where are assistive devices parked when not in use — near the entry, beside the bed, and in the bathroom? The answers to these questions can only come when designers understand how their clients manage, and when homeowners pay attention and communicate.

Measure the Body as Well
Access codes give only modest guidance in locating railings, sink heights, and bathroom mirrors because human beings do not come in one-size-fits-all models. Take the kitchen, for example. Most cabinets, stoves, and dishwashers are manufactured for 36-inch countertops, which is fine for a standing adult of average stature but inconvenient for many others. Shelves and refrigerators put only limited storage within reach — most
objects are either too high or too low. In the accessible kitchen, however, the user’s knee height, foot clearance, elbow height, and arm lengths dictate everything built in — from the locations of
shelving and drawers to the selection of appliances. And the same kind of thinking guides storage areas throughout the house.

home213_2bNot More or Bigger, Just Smarter
Most homes described in this book favor the sensible over the glitzy. Conventional bathrooms are a good example of impractical design, with standard plumbing fixtures that complicate the matter of personal hygiene. Pedestal sinks and vanities are too high, tubs are too shallow or deep, toilet seats are too low or crowded, and the flush-valve is usually on the left and out of reach.

By contrast, wall-hung toilets and sinks let the installer right-size these for the user. Without a medicine cabinet, the design can put toiletries and mirrors right where they’re needed, and properly sized for personal hygiene and medical supplies, while making space for a large mirror. In a bathroom remodeling it is usually easy to gain a little maneuvering space by incorporating a closet for the next room, without compromising bedroom activity areas.

So if Universal Design is a matter of good communication and commonsense design, why aren’t all homes accessible? The answer is part wishful thinking and part fear of runaway projects. Let’s face it: Our culture is in denial when it comes to facing the inevitable aging process and the chances of  catastrophic injury. And money and time are the biggest obstacles to renovation for most people. The good news is that both factors can be controlled, especially with careful planning and price-shopping [see below].

For people seeking to create accessible living spaces, this book offers a new vision of the home. Designing is about noticing the details, and at the same time thinking big-picture. It is as important to remove barriers to mobility as it is to make places that bring pleasure.

Whether designed for making art or music, woodworking or cooking, star-gazing or gardening, the accessible home is tailored to the lifestyles, passions, hobbies, and interests of its users. A house that is truly designed around what people can do, as well as what they can’t, becomes an
accessible home.

home213_3Deborah Pierce’s book, The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages and Abilities is filled with useful photos and stories drawn from case histories. It has received favorable reviews from numerous publications and organizations. Published by Taunton Press, it is available at and It can also be ordered in electronic format through iTunes (book section).

Twin Bugaboos: Time and Money

Construction projects take time — something in short supply after an accident, or unpredictable with a progressive illness — but taking a little time to make sound decisions can make the difference between getting it right the first time vs. doing the work twice. Property values are enhanced when modifications complement the house and are built to last.

Financing is often more problematic, and programs vary by state and political climate. Charitable organizations may have grants for qualifying low-income homeowners, and state housing agencies sometimes offer loans or technical assistance. Medically-prescribed home modifications may be deductible, so it’s best to consult with a tax planner. Phasing construction breaks projects in manageable doses, to control for both time and money.

If your house is filled with adaptive gadgets, remodeling can clear the clutter and simplify life. If you’re spending money on take-out because the kitchen doesn’t work, orhiring home-care aides to help with a myriad of chores, then remodeling costs can have a tangible payback.

You don’t need a big house to apply the ideas in The Accessible Home. One home showcased in the book is just 550 square feet, and most are two to three bedrooms. One small house gains space for two wheelchair users by removing a fireplace and putting the utility closet on an outside wall. Another tucks a platform lift into a bend in the outside wall so it fits snugly into a tight site. A third homeowner has made repairs over the course of many years.

Accessibility = Personal Choices

By Tim Gilmer

All of the homes in The Accessible Home were designed with the homeowners’ personal needs and choices in mind. Here are four examples from the book.

Brian McMillan, Kansas City, Mo., T4-5 para: A landscape architect, two years post-injury, McMillan built his house on a “funny, pie-shaped lot, but I liked the neighborhood.” Because of the odd shape, he built up — three stories. “Once you go vertical, that opens up a lot of solutions. I use the elevator several times a day, every day, a very well made piece of equipment. Fast, quiet, smooth and efficient.”

The deck atop his adjoining garage acts as a large front porch/outdoor space to relax or have a party. “I can prepare food and take it up there. Or bring out a larger folding table. It gets a lot of use,” says McMillan. It’s easy to access from his adjoining bedroom, where he added a refrigerator and an electric kettle for tea or hot chocolate and a substantial wet bar/sink, so he doesn’t have to go downstairs if he doesn’t want to.

The house has two bedrooms, two baths, and large rooms with large hallways on the top two stories. An unfinished basement is plumbed for a half-bath and is clean and open, good for storage, weights, and
miscellaneous stuff.

“We built the house before the big recession from an idealized diagram. I was very fortunate to be able to build this. On my website, if you can just take away two or three ideas, it might help. I understand that most people will have to remodel. I was fortunate to be able to build.”

Visit, which takes you from room to room in photos and points out accessible features throughout.

* * *

Randy Earle, Seattle, Wash., 44, diagnosed with MS at 28: Earle went from using a cane to forearm crutches to leg braces, and finally to a wheelchair, which is faster and easier.

He moved to Seattle in 2006 for his wife’s work. They rented, but were unhappy with their apartment. “We looked around and decided we would have to do it on our own,” says Earle. They bought a space that had been converted to a condo back in 1982.

They live on the third floor of what used to be an old factory building in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. “Just being able to wheel to places and have stuff close by is huge. We just have one car.” Talk about location: The post office is one block away; five different coffee shops are within wheeling distance, plus many restaurants, a pet store, a Grand Central Bakery, Safeco Field, Century Link field, King Street train station, light rail and the waterfront.

“It’s all about figuring out what you need,” says Earle. “The open kitchen, dining, living area is where we like to be.” He navigates by using a number of oversized pull handles on the stove and cabinets and a large kitchen island. “If I have a drink in my hand, with the hardwood floors I can use the grab bars to move myself from living room to dining area to kitchen in my chair easily. With a steady bar I can either stand or cook or move along freely. The bar keeps me from falling over backwards.” It also helps with refrigerator and top shelf access.

“This is what works for me.”

* * *


A central courtyard makes outdoor living accessible for Jessica Russell.

A central courtyard makes outdoor living accessible for Jessica Russell.

Jessica Russell, Portland, Maine, 31, C6-7 quad, injured at 18. Post-injury, she taught herself graphic design and web design. “I take classes as I see a need,” she says.

With her architect father’s help, Jessica and her husband built a house in the country in 2004. When her husband lost his job, they moved to the city — Portland, Maine — where he now works as a graphic designer. They are also starting up a handmade items store. They live with their 2-month-old son, Louie, and her sister, but go often to their country home, which they were fortunate to keep.

“We go there on weekends and quite a bit in the summer and spend all the holidays there,” she says, noting that most of the rooms look out on a courtyard and field. “There are huge windows so you feel the outside is the inside. I’m big on the sun, I get cold, so three doors open up, and the windows start from near the floor and go six feet high.”

Her favorite hangout is a greenhouse that wraps around the barn. “My husband and I pack it full, he grows veggies and I like flowers. There’s a workbench area with sink and hose, drains in the floor, concrete, and a good-sized bench. A lot of plants are on the floor, and on deep window sills, some hanging, some on the bench.”

The barn is really a family room, a wonderful place to gather with friends and family, with a piano she used to play, and a drum set for her younger sister, and there’s a pool table. “I unscrew half the bridge, and I use that to hold the cue. And my right hand has a pretty good grasp. I love spending time at our country home,” says Russell.

* * *

Karen Braitmayer, Seattle, Wash., early 50s, osteogenesis imperfecta. An architect, Braitmayer and her nondisabled husband bought a one-story ranch house in 1996. It already had a ramped entrance, some wider hallways, basic accessibility. But it needed more.

“The first thing we did was remodel the outside landscaping that was too steep to use. We put in rockeries to level it out so I can go around the house. My husband and I really enjoyed gardening.” Then in 2000, they brought their 4-year-old adopted daughter, Anita, home. She’s also a wheelchair user. “The goal then was to make it accessible not only for Anita, but for all of us, each with our own needs.”

The kitchen is the center of their life. Anita does her homework in the kitchen while dinner is being prepared. There are four different countertop areas ranging from 30 to 36
inches in height. “Anita and I both use lightweight manual chairs,” says Karen, “but we sit differently.” The kitchen works for all three family members, each a different height.

“We did a lot of things that I had been wondering about,” says Karen. “It was a chance to experiment and see what works.” For instance, a tall closed cabinet converts to a roll-under work area where a pull-out retractable shelf holds Karen’s Cuisinart and mixer. “They stay there so I don’t have to carry them around.”

The house itself is 1,700 square feet, but looks bigger because of the many windows. “We sit on a hill and look out across the landscape. The windows open up the outside world. We see the ship canal and the
neighborhood areas below.”