More MS news articles for February 2001

Universal Design Is No Barrier to Style

By Deborah K. Dietsch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 22, 2001; Page H01

Like many politicians new to Washington, freshman Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) hoped to find a place to live near the Capitol. His instructions to his real estate agent sounded simple: "an apartment that was relatively spacious and easy to retrofit."

But Langevin is no ordinary house hunter. The first quadriplegic to serve in Congress, his legs are paralyzed and he has limited use of his arms. His spinal cord was damaged in 1980, when a police officer accidentally fired a gun and the bullet entered Langevin's neck. At the time, the 16-year-old was working with the Warwick, R.I., police department as a cadet with the Boy Scout Explorer program.

Langevin now uses a battery-powered wheelchair and voice-recognition software to dictate letters, legislation and speeches on his computer. His special needs have prompted the House of Representatives to install an accessible voting machine and podium. At home, a live-in assistant helps him bathe, dress and prepare meals, though the 36-year-old congressman admits he eats out a lot. "I lead a very independent and full life," Langevin says.

But as for finding new living quarters in the District, "nothing I looked at was accessible." After considering more than a dozen properties, Langevin settled on a two-bedroom apartment in Foggy Bottom's Columbia Plaza for himself and his assistant. Even then, the bathroom needed to be renovated with a higher toilet and a shower big enough for a wheelchair.

The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 has eased the lives of Langevin and 54 million other disabled Americans in workplaces, stores, restaurants and museums. But it has made less difference at home. Exempt from the stringent requirements of the ADA, which applies only to public places, the average house or apartment -- even newly built -- does not meet even the most minimal needs of the disabled.

For wheelchair users like Langevin, doorways are usually too narrow, shower stalls and bathtubs have insurmountable thresholds, kitchen cabinets and appliances are too high to reach. And forget about getting to basements and upper floors unless you live in an apartment building -- few houses have elevators or stair-mounted lifts. According to the National Health Interview Survey, only about 3 percent of Americans live in homes with any kind of accessibility features.

But demand for barrier-free spaces is growing as the number of older Americans increases. By 2030, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 20 percent of the population will be 65 or older. Homebuilders are beginning to respond to this demographic shift by designing accessible units for empty-nesters and retirees.

In Rockville, for example, Eakin/Youngentob is selling houses with the master bedroom and bath on the ground floor as part of a subdivision called Fallsgrove. The builder first experimented with the accessible design in Alexandria's Old Town Village, completed in 1999.

For most people with disabilities, however, an accessible home requires extensive renovations to an existing one. Many spend months, even years, transforming a house or apartment so they can continue independent -- and dignified -- lives.

But accessible doesn't have to mean ascetic. Cobalt blue and acid green walls, cushy leather furniture and custom woodwork sound a wake-up call in the roomy Bethesda condo owned by Adam Lloyd, 31, who runs Gimp on the Go, a Web site for disabled travelers ( Designed by Washingtonians Robert Cole and Sophie Prevost, the boldly contemporary apartment serves as a live-work space for Lloyd, aquadriplegic.

Lining several walls are wood-edged steel panels that look chic and also serve a practical purpose: They are impervious to scuffing from Lloyd's power-driven wheelchair. The metal replaces the clear plastic sheets that are typically installed on corners and as wainscoting at the base of walls.

Floors, lined in planks of bamboo, are similarly durable. Cherry shelving is angled and low enough so that Lloyd can change a tape in the VCR, grab a book or rearrange his artwork. Ansel Adams photographs and colorful silkscreen prints by artist David Chung are hung so that they can be viewed while seated. Furniture is arranged for easy maneuvering.

"Everything is designed for my perspective," explains Lloyd, who frequently hosts poker games at his glass-topped Italian dining table.

While increased mobility and comfort may be their primary goals, those who have undertaken such renovations claim the benefits reach well beyond ramps, grab bars and other ADA-compliant features. They contribute to universal design -- environments that can make spaces more usable for anyone.

"This is design that makes sense for everyone," says architect Kim Beasley, who used to work for the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) and has written on accessible home design. "People with disabilities help amplify problems [in the home] that exist for everybody."

And those who are not disabled today could be disabled tomorrow. According to the National Safety Council, seven out of 10 workers between the ages of 35 and 65 will experience a disability lasting three months or longer. One out of seven will be disabled for five years or more before retirement. Many will be faced with adapting the type of home owned by John and Judy Bollinger. The one-story brick rambler in Alexandria was built in 1963 with narrow halls and doorways, small bathrooms and kitchen, and a carport.

In making the house wheelchair accessible, John Bollinger, PVA's deputy executive director and a quadriplegic, tapped Beasley to design a series of subtle improvements.

The architect began by enlarging the master bathroom with his-and-her vanities, a roll-in shower and a closet with an accessible clothes rack. He then moved outside to completely transform the front facade with a new garage, colonnade and portico. Instead of adding an obvious ramp, Beasley inserted a sloped brick walkway behind the colonnade that blends into the architecture.

Other accessible features are similarly imperceptible: sliding and French doors between rooms, a low countertop and cabinet in the kitchen, and a wooden dining table that is customized to allow a wheelchair to slide into place.

The Bollingers, who previously built a custom house in Fort Washington, admit that not everything in their current home is accessible. The couple considered installing an elevator to the basement, for example, but ruled against it for cost and space reasons. And in extending a new deck off their patio, they chose not to build a ramp down to the yard.

"It's a very personal decision," says John Bollinger. "You do what works for you. You make your home as accessible as you think it needs to be."

This case-by-case approach, experts say, is key to creating truly comfortable spaces for people with disabilities. "The biggest misconception about accessible design," says Beasley, "is that the needs of the disabled are all the same."

Architects and their disabled clients say the ADA-related guidelines, developed by the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Compliance Board and American National Standards Institute, are only a starting point for barrier-free residential design.

"Guidelines are just guidelines," says Scott Holland, a 47-year-old quadriplegic who works at the U.S. Department of Transportation. "They might not work for you." He says the most accessible design is customized to meet particular physical challenges.

By way of example, Holland points to his recently renovated 1959 home in Lake Bancroft. In the kitchen, the oven and dishwasher are positioned so that he can open them with his right hand, because he has no movement in his left. Countertops are 34 inches high, two inches lower than standard ones. Sink, cooktop and kitchen island allow room for his legs and wheelchair, thanks to architect Tom Klose, who started his design by measuring the height of Holland's knees and the width of his chair.

These details are part of a striking Craftsman-style interior that combines living room, dining area and kitchen into a flowing space under a timber-lined ceiling. Glass-shaded lights, oak cabinets and furniture look borrowed from a Prairie-style bungalow by Frank Lloyd Wright.

"Accessibility shouldn't be tacked on," says Klose. "It should be an integral part of your design."

Architects say one of the greatest obstacles to accessible -- and attractive -- design is the paucity of ADA-compliant products for the home. For Holland's kitchen, Klose managed to find an oven with a door that swings to the side. But he had a harder time locating a wheelchair lift that could be attached to the narrow staircase to the basement, where Holland likes to play pool. After toying with the idea of designing one himself, the architect discovered a small lift made by Concord, a company based in Ontario, Canada (800-661-5112).

For people with advancing disabilities, accessible design elements are introduced incrementally as their physical condition changes. Twenty years ago, Karen Pitelka, a senior manager with General Electric who is now retired, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a progressive disease that hardens tissue in the brain or spinal cord. By the early 1990s, she had difficulty walking up the stairs in her Potomac town house.

Rather than move, she began slowly rehabbing her home. "My changing needs dictated the renovation," she says.

After Pitelka began using a wheelchair, she hired Access Remodeling, a Potomac company that specializes in accessible design, to rework her bathroom. Out came the whirlpool tub and standard toilet. In went a roll-in shower, new vanity with accessible faucet and knobs, and brass grab bars that double as towel racks. When her arms began to weaken, Pitelka redid the kitchen with cherry cabinets, lower granite countertops and pull-out surfaces for transferring dishes from the stove and microwave.

Three years ago, Pitelka installed a hardwood ramp from the dining area to the sunken living room and threw herself a 50th birthday party. By 1999, she had installed an elevator and reworked the entrance to her home with a low ramp and terrace enclosed by planters. Last year, she completely redecorated her living room with new furniture and a rug. "Design for disabilities doesn't have to be ugly," she says.

And those in wheelchairs who have renovated their homes to suit their daily routines find that resale is no problem. After separating from his wife, Holland put his newly renovated house up for sale and quickly found a buyer, though he eventually decided to stay put.

For most people with disabilities, however, universal design remains a lofty ideal because few can afford to spend the thousands of dollars -- $10,000 for a wheelchair lift alone -- required of these renovations, regardless of federal and state tax deductions. According to a recent study sponsored by the National Organization on Disability, only 29 percent of Americans ages 18 to 64 with disabilities are working.

Rep. Langevin, who says he spent $6,000 on renovating his bathroom, hopes to change that by strengthening the ADA and supporting President Bush's recently proposed New Freedom Initiative. The bill would increase appropriations for research and development of assisting technologies and, among other provisions, help disabled people buy equipment for telecommuting from home.

Boosting tax relief for those trying to achieve universal design at home is also on Langevin's agenda. "I'd like to see tax incentives for the disabled for renovations or to encourage landlords to make their places accessible," he says. "I'd like to see affordable and accessible homes for everyone."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company