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Universal design can open doors once closed

By Jeff TurrentineThe Washington Post When a family with young children crosses the threshold into a new home, the kids typically race through the unfamiliar space at lightning speed, laying claim to rooms, checking out appliances, mapping out the floor plan in a few gleeful minutes. True to form, identical twins Isabel and Olivia Kessler could barely contain themselves when their parents, Lewis and Tamara Kessler, first opened the doors to their Chevy Chase, Md., home in December 2003. The girls bolted ahead of their parents to survey their new domain. Closets were studied. Faucets and toilets were assessed. The suitability of various rooms for various types of 8-year-old play was scrupulously evaluated. And, of course, they had to try out the elevator. Isabel was born with cerebral palsy and must use a wheelchair or a walker to move around. Though she has never let her disability get in the way of fun – she counts horseback riding, bicycling, basketball and skiing among her favorite hobbies – she must still navigate her way daily through a world designed for others. The elevator, small and discreet, would serve as Isabel’s all-access pass to this three-story contemporary house on a narrow lot. “She’s an athletic, extroverted kid,” says Lewis Kessler, who, like his wife, is a 42-year-old lawyer. “She’s just not as mobile. What we take for granted, Isabel works very hard to do.” The girls spent the first few years of their lives in a side-hall Colonial in the same Chevy Chase, Md., neighborhood where their mother had grown up. The Kesslers loved the area and wanted to stay in it. “But we realized the house just wasn’t going to work for us,” says Kessler. “We had to go up four steps to get to the front door and ten steps to the rear door. The rooms were small and the doorways were too narrow- Isabel was banging into everything with her walker or wheelchair. We thought, ‘Should we retrofit? Maybe we could put in an elevator.’ But it was hard to imagine where it would go in the house. Finally we realized that the best thing would be to start from scratch.” Soon Kessler was availing himself of the Architect/Client Resource Center, the clearinghouse of portfolios maintained by the Washington branch of the American Institute of Architects. After studying the work of more than 400 local architects, the Kesslers decided that Robert M. Gurney of Alexandria, Va., would come closest to giving them what they wanted: “a clean, minimalist look that could stand the test of time and wouldn’t look dated ten years from now.” (Tamara Kessler had her own evocative way of summing up what she wanted: “Japanese Calvin Klein.”) But livability, more than looks, was of paramount importance. “We wanted modern, but we needed universal design,” says Kessler. There could be no compromising on the bedrock tenet of universal design: maximum accessibility for all people, regardless of their abilities or disabilities. Kessler contacted the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University in Raleigh and requested a copy of their checklist of universal design must-haves (downloadable at http://www.design.ncsu.edu/cud/). Then he and his wife took the list to Gurney and let him know what they couldn’t live without. Among the nonnegotiables: • A subtly graded ramp that led to the house’s front door. (“We didn’t want it going to the side door,” says Kessler. “We wanted Isabel to come in the front, just like we do.”) • An open plan on the main floor, with enough empty space in each room to accommodate full radial turns of Isabel’s wheelchair. • Extra-wide doorways with flush thresholds. • Grab bars in showers and anywhere else they might be necessary or convenient. • Wheel-under sinks and work stations. • An elevator large enough to accommodate Isabel’s wheelchair plus another standing person, with access to all floors of the house, including the basement. The final cost of building came out to about $540,000 for the 3,000-square-foot house, not including undisclosed architect’s fees and property costs. The $180-per-square-foot building cost is slightly above average for a custom-built home in the Washington area, according to the National Association of Home Builders, but by no means stratospheric in the current housing market. Incorporating universal design into a new build, the architect says, is primarily a matter of forethought, not money. “Other than the elevator, (a house like this) is consistent with the costs of any custom-built house,” says Gurney. “It’s just about planning; it’s not necessarily more expensive.” Happily, many of the principles of universal design meshed perfectly with Gurney’s own. “His doorways, for instance, are almost always at least three feet wide,” says Kessler. “And he tends toward big, open spaces. It’s like he’s already building universal-design houses without even trying.” Other features include a front yard of exposed aggregate concrete, rather than grass, which “doesn’t work for us – it’s really just a barrier, very hard to wheel over,” says Kessler. (The concrete also makes for a fine basketball court.) Bathroom faucets are either turned on and off with infrared sensors or placed close to the edge of the counter, so Isabel doesn’t have to lean in too far. The stylish, curbless shower she shares with her sister has a built-in seat; the showerhead is a movable wand that rests at arm level. Elevator doors open automatically, making entrances and exits much easier. Gurney designed sturdy gates at the top of each stairwell to ensure that Isabel’s chair doesn’t slip off when she’s zooming through the house. Her favorite room, to hear her father tell it, is the kitchen. “She comes flying in here every night,” says Kessler, “and tells us that she’s ‘reporting for duty.’ ” The microwave oven has been placed low to the ground, as have a pair of supplemental refrigerators, making the retrieval and preparation of snacks a breeze for Isabel. There’s also a slide-out work station where she can chop and mix, giving her a chance to participate fully in meal preparations. “She uses the kitchen every weekend – I can’t tell you how many batches of brownies I’ve had in the last year,” says Kessler. Ultimately, he says, the universally designed kitchen, like the rest of the house, is about making Isabel feel “enabled, not disabled. We want her to take part in everything we do.” According to Gurney, the biggest challenge he faced wasn’t integrating universal design into his plan. It was trying to build a house on a lot that measures less than 50 feet across. “And then,” he says, “they wanted me to put a pool in.” Against all odds, he gave the Kesslers a 75-foot ribbon of water along the side of the house, just wide enough for serious-swimmer Olivia to use as a lap pool, but long enough to serve as the neighborhood kids’ hot spot during summer months. To endear the Kesslers to the neighborhood parents in this most traditionally minded of Washington suburbs, Gurney created a street-facing facade using updated versions of familiar architectural elements – clapboard siding, columns, a brick base and a standing-seam metal roof, among others – which put the house’s modernism in a comfortable context and made it seem like less of an interloper on the block. Lewis Kessler returns in his memory to that day in December 2003 when his family moved in. Whatever hassles, headaches, cost overruns and delays he and his wife had endured evaporated instantly as their daughters gave their new home a shrieking, squealing seal of approval. “Olivia and Isabel were so excited to have a house they could both get around in,” he says. “They kept saying to us, ‘Thank you, thank you.’ They’re sweet girls, but you never hear that sort of … it was really coming from their core. It was like: ‘Thank you, we can be twins again.’ ” “Olivia and Isabel were so excited to have a house they could both get around in,” he says. “They kept saying to us, ‘Thank you, thank you.’ They’re sweet girls, but you never hear that sort of … it was really coming from their core. It was like: ‘Thank you, we can be twins again.’ “


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