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Accessible design

Universal design is about creating well-designed homes that are accessible (and attractive) for everyone

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Scott Brehaut visits the home of his sister, Dr. Lynn Stewart, in Murray Harbour, P.E.I. The siblings’ brother, Lorin Brehaut, designed both of their homes using the principles of universal design. A local cabinet maker built the kitchen island to ensure the drawers offered easy access for wheelchair users. The counter tops in Stewart’s kitchen feature open spaces where one would often see extra cupboard space. This offers a barrier-free work area for food preparation. Photo by: Stephen Harris

Twenty-one years ago, Prince Edward Island architect Lorin Brehaut designed and built a home for his brother, who is paraplegic. Three years ago, Brehaut designed a new house for his sister, who is also paraplegic.

The principles that make a home navigable for someone in a wheelchair haven’t changed much. The biggest shift he noticed was that building homes to be accessible for people with mobility challenges (called universal design) is more common.

  • High sloping ceilings and brilliant natural light offer this accessible home an airy feeling that complements the open spaces created to simplify navigating the home in a wheelchair. Photo by: Stephen Harris
  • Photo by: Stephen Harris
  • Photo by: Stephen Harris
  • Efficient use of space is key to making this 1,500-square-foot home functional for both Stewart, a wheelchair user, and her six-foot-four husband. The bathroom sink accommodates a wheelchair underneath in place of a traditional vanity. Wall-mounted drawers next to the sink offer accessible storage. Photo by: Stephen Harris
  • The 1.5 metre wide shower is floor-level with no lip, to make moving in and out of it simple for everyone. Like the other rooms of the house, the bathroom features wide doorways and pocket doors to offer space to manoeuvre a wheelchair. Photo by: Stephen Harris
  • Lorin Brehaut, founder of Studio Brehaut in Guernesy Cove, P.E.I., built an accessible home for each of his siblings. Though he completed the two projects 20 years apart, the principles of accessible design remain the same. What’s changed, he says, is the popularity of designing and building homes with future accessibility in mind. Photo by: Stephen Harris
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In his sister’s case, there was one potential issue: her husband. “She’s in a chair, and he’s six-foot-four,” Brehaut says.

To make the space work for both of them, Brehaut designed a fairly small house: 1,500 square feet and 1.5 storeys with a chairlift and two bedrooms, and a slab-on-grade foundation. There is no basement and it’s close to the ground, so there was no need for a front stairway. It has a 1,000-square-foot terrace and the roof extends over the entry.

With its compact size, efficient use of space was important. The house has two bathrooms with a shared, 1.5-metre wide shower. The bathroom sinks jut out so a wheelchair can fit underneath. The toilet is wall-hung to save space. And there are grab bars.

With one exception at the front of the house, the doors are all pocketed, sliding into the walls. That eliminates a lot of extra wheelchair maneuvering.

The kitchen is the most important room. “My sister loves to cook,” Brehaut says. The counters are low for easy access and there’s a shallow sink. The dishwasher is elevated an extra 45 centimetres so it’s easy for her to load and unload. A local cabinet maker built the island with easy-access storage drawers.

The house feels substantial thanks to a large communal living and dining space with high sloping ceilings. “It’s just smart design and good planning,” Brehaut says.

As universal design gains popularity and building codes require its use in public spaces, architects and designers are gaining more knowledge of barrier-free design. But it still pays for homeowners with mobility needs to research desirable features.

“While our builder was good,” says Greg Brown, a Halifax wheelchair user who designed his own house, “there was a lot of thought process and research on our end before we ever got a quote.”

Many of the features Brown needs also work well for his wife, who he describes as being “on the petite side.” She likes the lower countertops, for example.

But he wanted to design a home that would also work for any future owners. The last thing he wanted was a house he could never sell. “It looks like an ordinary home for the most part,” he says.

The house features an accessible dishwasher and stove that can be lifted or lowered to the height required. The kitchen island lowers to tabletop height so that it can be used as a cutting-board surface. “It’s great for little visitors,” Brown says. “They sit on nice sturdy dining room chairs to eat at the bar.”

The floors are all hard surfaces with in-floor heating for Brown’s convenience, a popular and efficient feature of many modern homes. There are two full bathrooms, one with a regular shower-bathtub and the other with a sitting shower and grab bar. Potential buyers may appreciate having the choice between a bath or shower.

The fundamental feature is open space, whether in the bedrooms, attached garage, or the 1.2-metre-wide path around the exterior. “It makes for a lovely uncluttered home,” Brown says.

That appeal is perhaps one reason universal design is taking off. It makes for an attractive home regardless of mobility. Indeed, many people requesting universal design don’t yet experience any mobility challenges. But they are thinking ahead.

“Most of our clients are in their early to mid-60s and quite active,” says Alec Brown, a partner at Abbott Brown Architects in Halifax. “There are a lot of people coming from larger cities, dreaming of retirement on the coast. They want master bedrooms on the entrance level, grab handles, chairlifts, a larger bathroom, wider corridors and doors.”

In addition to a growing knowledge of universal design, Brown has observed an expanding sense of what accessibility means. “It used to be just wheelchairs,” he says. “A lot of our clients are concerned about arthritis reducing their mobility. It’s any way someone might have some barrier. There are homes being designed for very obese people as well, to make their lives more manageable.”

Brehaut links the shift toward accessibility to the baby-boom generation, currently aged 51 to 69, that has been turned off by the idea of retirement home living. “No one wants to have to go to a home,” he says.

Boomers expect to stay active in retirement, even as their health deteriorates. They have every intention of maintaining a high standard of independent living, complete with trips to the cottage. “I’m currently writing a proposal for a couple who want to renovate their cottage so that it’s accessible,” Brehaut says.

Some homeowners elect to retrofit for accessibility, a strategy that presents unique challenges. Pocket doors, for example, aren’t easily added to old houses, and the staircases often aren’t wide enough for a chairlift. Widening them can be expensive.

“It would have probably cost us more to retrofit an older house,” Greg Brown says. “But sometimes you find really good deals on accessible items online that would have cost many thousands of dollars new.”

A retrofit for an older house may involve widening doorways and replacing steps with a lower gradient variety. Some of Alec Brown’s clients have elected to build a new wing on the ground floor to accommodate a master bedroom and more wheelchair space.

Brehaut is renovating an old farmhouse with a new accessible bathroom. He himself recently switched from a commercial space to a new home office and added an accessible bathroom.

In the two decades since Brehaut’s brother first inspired him to engage in universal design, it has become the new normal. “All of my colleagues are thinking about accessibilty issues for every project,” he says. “Accessibility is always on our radar.”

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