Helping Your House Age Along With You

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Architect Erick Mikiten ticks off some of the top reasons many people fear growing older: perceived threats of being institutionalized, aging out of relevance, becoming progressively more isolated. And, he says, these are the self-same traits that must be avoided in architectural design.

Mikiten argues that architects must update designs of homes and other buildings to be “future-proof,” so they’re able to age and grow along with the people for whom they’re created. To that end, he’s a staunch proponent of Universal Design — a concept and process that espouses designs must work for the greatest range of users — regardless of age or disability, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation.

“We will all accumulate disabilities over our lifetimes,” says Mikiten, who dubs himself “A Wheelchair-Riding Architect.” He has used a chair for mobility most of his life, and says that experience has given him “a deep and first-hand understanding not only of the need for architectural designs that are usable by everybody, but also a real ability and insight into how to accommodate those needs.”

As a prime example, he points to some recent renovations made to the home he shares in Berkeley, California, with his wife, Elisa Mikiten, a planner also trained and steeped in Universal Design. It includes a “stramp” — a combination stairway and ramp leading to the entrance constructed on a steep rise, but now accessible to Erick as he rides his chair. “People with disabilities need to feel like they’re going in the front door,” he says.

Doing the Wright Thing

Mikiten — and the world — learned much about architecture from one of the heralded masters, Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed more than 1,000 homes and public structures during a career spanning nearly 70 years. In all that time, only one spot was designed specifically to accommodate a person with disabilities: the house built for Phyllis and Kenneth Laurent in 1951 in Rockford, Illinois. And it contains dozens of design ideas that any person mindful of the aging process could learn from — and possibly incorporate.

The home was one of about 60 of Wright’s Usonian structures — small single-story “well-designed homes for those of average means” that could easily be adapted to expand to accommodate growing families and changing needs.

The story of how the house came to be is a good one. Kenneth and Phyllis Laurent married in 1941, the year before he was drafted into the U.S. Navy. Shortly after he returned in 1946, he was diagnosed with spinal cord cancer; the tumor was eventually removed, but the surgery left him unable to move his legs. During his many months of recuperation, the couple planned to build a place they could live in together — made possible by a $10,000 matching grant the government gave disabled veterans as housing assistance. Phyllis Laurent read an article about one of Wright’s designs in House Beautiful magazine and was most impressed by the nontraditional open floor plan, uncluttered floor spaces, and description that “practically everything is built in, so there aren’t a lot of places for dust to gather.”

Kenneth Laurent penned a two-page note to Wright that included the words: “I am paralyzed from the waist down and by virtue of my condition, I am confined to a wheelchair. This explains my need for a home as practical and sensible as your style of architecture denotes.” He also mentioned the couples’ $20,000 budget. But Wright accepted the commission, and the house was constructed a few years later.

The Laurent House, now on the National Register of Historic Places, is composed of cypress, which contains oil that acts a natural waterproofing, as well as brick; Wright had originally specified limestone instead of brick, but the cost was beyond their budget. It is shaped in an arc, which Wright called a “hemicycle;” his first single-story hemicycle home in the nation. The shape of the home, combined with floor-to-ceiling glass and overhanging eaves, and radiant heat, made it energy-efficient. Several of its features were typical of Wright’s other Usonian houses: carport instead of a garage, curtains instead of many walls, a natural setting with chimneys and lots of window for light.

But some components were specifically designed so that the wheelchair-riding Kenneth Laurent could live there independently, including:

  • No entry threshold — the outdoor surface runs seamlessly to the inside
  • Halls wide enough to turn around a wheelchair
  • Low, recessed lighting
  • Vistas throughout, most pleasing at a seated level
  • Cabinets with drawers that pull down instead of drawers that pull out
  • Built-in desk, banquette, cabinets and furniture accessible from a low level
  • A large, open shower stall in the bathroom
  • Light switches mounted low on the wall
  • Door openings of 36” or more.

Note that Wright’s design was several decades before most architects, builders, or the government considered designing for people with disabilities. The Laurents lived in the house, which Wright — not known as an affectionate man — affectionately called “Little Gem.”

Ideas for Accessible Homes

Back to the future — and the principles Erick Mikiten learned from Wright’s early work as well as his own training and experience. He distilled them in a list, “Top 10 Ideas for a Great Accessible Home,” aimed at everyone “who lives along a continuum between ability and disability.” They are summarized here.

Be smart about getting in. When deciding on the best front entrance, find the highest spot near your house and plan a ramp from there to keep it as short and convenient as possible.

Think about the outdoors. Especially for someone with limited mobility, the option of getting outside — even if it’s just to a small back deck — can make a huge difference.

Bathroom space. Being able to use the bathroom independently is top on many people’s lists. Look around and see if there are any closets or other spaces from which to borrow.

Flooring. Choose materials carefully, based on their thickness and how they meet one another. Also, think about their slipperiness and safety.

Kitchen workspaces. Create work areas with different heights, which benefit everyone, whether seated or standing

Laundry area. Get it out of the garage or basement; it’s usually best on the same floor as the master bedroom.

Doorways. It may be easy to widen doorways in nonstructural walls, or use swing-clear hinges and remove door stops on the jamb to free additional space.

Plan for connectedness. Make the home easy for others to visit, and make sure there’s an easily accessible workspace.

Be flexible. While it’s impossible to predict future needs, be open to how your home can grow with your needs rather than work against you.

Think ahead to save money. The best time to implement accessible design ideas is any time you remodel. Do the parts that are easy then — such as pre-wiring for a future stairlift or including blocking for grab bars in the bathroom.

Photo Credit: Bluefish815 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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