When you walk in, there's something different about the house, but it's hard to put your finger on it immediately.
It's obviously a total rehab -- every surface looks pristine, in contemporary colors and finishes. The rooms are spacious, the layouts thoughtful, the furniture perfectly suited to the setting.
So what is this small dwelling's special role? You can, in fact, put your finger on it -- when you reach for the light and find a rocker-type switch set just 37 inches above the floor.
Then you notice lever handles on all doors; electrical outlets 25 inches above the floor; low-pile or non-slip type flooring everywhere; a stair glide in the stairway.
Clearly a lot of thought and effort has gone into making this house a place where someone with special needs could live more easily.
When the South East Senior Housing Initiative of Baltimore began surveying older citizens to find out what they needed to continue living in their current homes, they didn't know how quickly and concretely they'd be able to put what they learned into practice.
Some of the organizations that make up the SESHI coalition initially thought that the answer for keeping seniors in their neighborhoods would be to build senior housing, said Jo Fisher of SESHI.
But over and over people expressed a desire to "stay put," Bette Albert recalled in a recent interview. Mrs. Albert and her husband George were among members of the South East community who helped SESHI determine senior needs.
The Alberts count themselves among those who don't want to leave their homes. "Today's our wedding anniversary," Mrs. Albert said, "47 years. And that's how long I've been here."
"It was suggested in a focus group discussion," Jo Fisher said, "that people don't know the things they could do to their homes and one of the greatest services we could provide is to showcase products and adaptations." Enter Brian Latronico of Styleline, a local contractor, who just happened to be buying a house in the South East area -- a typical East Baltimore two-story row house -- he was hoping to rehab. He heard about SESHI on a radio talk show at 6 one morning.
"I was on my way to see my mother in Florida," he said. He realized that his mother, like the South East seniors, needs some special help -- "Which she'd never accept from me," Mr. Latronico said, "so I thought, why not do it for someone else?"
He bought the house, loaned it to SESHI, and renovated it over the summer to incorporate all of the features seniors said would make their houses better fit their needs.
The result is "Our Idea House," with plans by volunteer architect Pete Notari.
Overwhelmingly the single most desired design element, Ms. Fisher said, is a first-floor bathroom. It's more convenient and it facilitates single-floor living, should that be necessary.
Our Idea House has a first-floor main bath with a wide door that opens outward for safety, grab bars, a toilet that is 20 inches high to make it easier to move to and from a wheelchair, and a tub/shower unit that incorporates a "removable transfer seat" on the rim and a shower head that converts to a hand-held version.
The vanity is cut away in front to allow wheelchair access and the mirror over the vanity is angled to make it easier to see.
The kitchen also has a lever faucet and an angled mirror over the stove so the contents of pots are always visible -- a great feature for anyone. Both sides of a side-by-side refrigerator-freezer are equally accessible. Stackable washer and dryer are out of the way in a kitchen closet, and the sink has a nifty retractable front to allow working while seated.
Because many seniors said they were reluctant to let any stranger into the house, special care was taken with utilities. The electric panel box is in the kitchen, located low on a wall to make access easier. The meter is outside, so the reader doesn't have to come in. The gas meter can also be read from outside.
Mr. Latronico said a designer friend chose the colors -- aqua and a peachy pink predominate -- deliberately making them bright and cheerful. "If you stimulate your mind," Mr. Latronico said, "then I think your body can work with you." Now that Our Idea House is "up and running," SESHI is working on a system to evaluate houses in terms of senior needs, a way for lending institutions to provide funds, a way of alerting the medical profession so specific living needs can be met.
When people come to the model house, Ms. Fisher said, "we want them to get ideas they might apply in their own homes, and then we want to be in a situation to help them."
Our Idea House, at 3003 E. Fait Ave., is open to the public Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Saturdays by appointment for the next year. Call SESHI at (410) 327-6193.
Next: What's cooking in kitchen design.
Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is Home Editor of The Sun.
If you have questions, comments, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.