I knew the design process started with a statement of needs that would become the basis for developing the schematic plan, so Steven and I came prepared for our first meeting with our newly hired architect, Shorieh Talaat, a written program statement in hand.
The goal was a house that would accommodate Steven’s current disabilities, but also one that could accommodate any future disabilities, should his MS rob him of even more control over his body than it already had. In short, we wanted a house that was a great example of universal design. But in addition to meeting our accessibility needs, we wanted a house that would satisfy our life-long dream of living in a very creative, contemporary, light-filled environment, all of course within our financial means.
But this wasn’t to be a whole house renovation. The living room, dining room, kitchen and den were fine. The renovation would be focused in the “private” side of our very typical, unassuming 1950s-era three-bedroom rambler. One of the challenges would be integrating the new with the old so that once completed the entire house seemed all of a piece.
Specifically we wanted wide corridors that would accommodate a full-size wheelchair’s turning radius. We wanted three-foot wide doorways into all the rooms and a master bath that was sufficiently large so that I wouldn’t have to shimmy between wall and wheelchair to assist Steven, and he wouldn’t bang his toes and shins on the sharp edges of cabinets when his legs went into spasm and jutted out in front of him. We were tired of being bruised and concerned that each shower or transfer to the toilet would end with Steven on the floor and me having to call a neighbor for help.
We had other requirements too of course. We had to maintain three bedrooms so Steven could have a home office, and we needed a guest room for when our granddaughter or my mom came to visit. The hall bathroom also needed to be accessible and accommodate Steven’s power chair, not just the smaller manual one that managed to squeeze through the doorway now.
And so it began. Shorieh asked many questions. “Didn’t I also want an office in the main part of the house instead of in the basement?” “Sure if I could have one, but it is not a priority,” I responded. “How much closet space do you need?” “At least as much as we have now, plus a big pantry,” we replied. Sheepishly we admitted we’d like a fireplace in the master bedroom. “But it is a luxury we can certainly do without if it busts the budget,” we quickly added.
That first meeting lasted several hours. We talked about how we were going to fit our requirements into the framework of the existing house and what the site would allow us to do and what it wouldn’t. The house is set on a fairly small lot, with a nice deep front yard but not much space on either side, and not a whole lot of space in the back either. The only solution we all agreed was to go up, a somewhat counter-intuitive idea when you are talking about an accessible home. There was obviously an elevator in our future, and a small generator to keep it operating should the power go out when Steven was inside. Dreams of the bedroom fireplace began to dissipate. This renovation was going to be expensive, and we would all have to be very creative to achieve our goals.
Armed With Information
Armed with pages of notes, Shorieh went away and began the process of figuring out how our various requirements would fit together, what was and wasn’t possible given the parameters of the house, and what it would all look like from an architectural standpoint.
Several weeks later he came back with what looked to us like the plans for a palace. “Whoa,” we said. “We don’t need that much space. The master suite is too large and so is the secondary bedroom on the upper level. We don’t need, and don’t want that much square footage. Let’s take a more modest approach.”
Back Shorieh went to the computer - the drawing board being a relic of our pre-electronic age - and took a fresh look at the design problem we had presented him. This time he came back with a plan that was definitely more in line with our thinking, and our pocket book we judged. It needed finessing of course, but we could see that with a bit more work it could be the house we were hoping for.
Once we agreed on the broad outlines of the plan, we began looking in earnest at the details. “The way you have the bathroom drawn won’t work because we need arm supports for Steven next to the sink. We need at least four feet on either side of the bed to make morning and evening transfers easy. We love the idea of that little porch off the master bedroom and the sliding doors that open from the middle, but we need to make sure that the track is completely level so the wheelchair can easily go over it.”
We went back and forth like that. Shorieh would present a revised plan or an elevation of part of the bathroom; we would comment; he would revise, until at last we had a plan and a design that totally met our practical needs and satisfied our aesthetic sensibilities as well. There was lots of light coming in from clerestory windows and a skylight. The hallways were wide, and the master bath, the room that started the whole project in the first place, was WONDERFUL. To make sure it really worked for us, Shorieh had taken photographs as we simulated a transfer to the toilet and how Steven supports himself at the sink as I help him stand so I can quickly hike up his pants He took precise measurements of the height of our grab bars and even the length of Steven’s right arm. We were convinced that everything was going to work and that we could live in this house forever. It was a really good feeling.
Copyright 2004, 2005 Suzanne Mintz. Originally published in Paraplegic News. Reprinted with permission.