Design For Mobility and Environmental Health

The Americans with Disabilities Act, which passed two decades ago, does not apply to private residences, but it has encouraged us to focus on improving access in homes, as well, making universal design almost a given. As in the past, I am going to recommend a new phrase; in lieu of “universal design” or “aging-in-place,” I would like to add “designing for all.”

Designing for chemical or respiratory ailments is not so common, yet it is estimated that more than 30 million people suffer from asthma—10 times as many as use wheelchairs. Millions of other people cannot tolerate certain chemical products.

Here is an example of how I incorporated designing for all and considered chemical sensitivities in a residential remodel project.

I received a call from a couple (let’s call them Alana and Bernie) who wanted to remodel their townhouse. During our initial phone contact, the conversation ranged from an outdated kitchen to needing more space to incorporating aging-in-place amenities.

During our in-person meeting, I received quite a surprise; Alana was sitting in a motorized scooter/chair. She saw the expression on my face and informed me that she and Bernie had purposely not told me about her condition.

Alana was recently diagnosed with a degenerative disease that will confine her to a wheelchair full time within the next six to eight months. She also is chemically sensitive to most man-made materials. The home’s existing floor plan had two bedrooms and two baths on the second floor, including the master bedroom and master bath. The first floor consisted of a family room, living room, dining room, kitchen and small powder room. The couple’s daily routine
involved Bernie carrying Alana up and down the stairs in the morning and at bedtime. As Bernie ages, this has become more difficult.

Alana and Bernie decided to sacrifice the first-floor living and dining room areas and convert them to a master bedroom and bathroom, eliminating the need for Bernie to carry Alana up and down the stairs every day. This would allow Alana the opportunity to move around as she needed to.

Additionally, the following designingfor- all amenities were incorporated to aid Alana’s mobility:

  • A roll-in shower with a continuous bench and grab bars was installed in the master bathroom, allowing Alana to navigate her scooter into it, transfer to the bench and leave her scooter in a dry place.
  • A high toilet and low sink were installed.
  • A wider out-swinging door was installed in the powder room to make it easier for Alana to gain access to the handicap toilet, if needed.
  • In the kitchen, the sink was lowered and the base was hollowed out so Alana could swing her scooter directly underneath.
  • The work counter that Alana uses to prepare meals in the kitchen also was lowered.

In addition, from an environmentalhealth perspective, my team included the following:

  • Hardwood floors were installed throughout the first floor. Dust is less likely to collect on hard surfaces compared to carpeting. Also, carpeting can offgas chemicals that are hard for people with respiratory problems to tolerate.
  • New windows with integral blinds were installed, eliminating drapes, which also collect dust and can offgas.
  • A HEPA filter was installed on the furnace to cleanse the air.

Some people have told me the resale value of Alana and Bernie’s townhome has been greatly diminished because there no longer are living and dining rooms. My response is Alana doesn’t need the living room and dining room. She now can get around easily in her own home and be self-sufficient.

Yes, a house is an investment, but it is also the place in which you live. Alana and Bernie’s remodeled home is now barrier- and toxin-free. To my clients, it is well worth it. And, in the end, that is what matters.

Quote of the Month

“There is nothing wrong with pursuing a vision of greatness.” Jim Collins, author of Built to Last.