New design lets disabled feel at home

September 13, 1992|By JoAnne C. Broadwater | JoAnne C. Broadwater,Contributing Writer

For months after she was paralyzed in an automobile accident, Karen Colvin had to kiss her two young children good night and sing bedtime songs to them from the bottom of the stairs.

"My wheelchair couldn't fit in the hall," recalled Mrs. Colvin. "I was on the first floor, and the only time I went upstairs was when I was carried up to go to bed. I couldn't even put my kids to bed."

That was almost 10 years ago. Mrs. Colvin's children were 4 and 6, and the family lived in a multistory house with lots of steps and shag carpets. Most of the time she stayed indoors and had to be carried a lot.

"It was a nightmare house," said Mrs. Colvin, 38. "But I knew there was a pot of gold waiting for me."

That pot of gold was the house that she and her family moved into a year after she was injured. It's a custom-built rancher with a lower level and it's equipped with a wheelchair lift and five-degree ramps in and out of every door.

"There's not a corner of this house that I can't get to," Mrs. Colvin said. Her husband, developer John Colvin of Questar Properties Inc., designed the house for his wife and built it on property the couple owned in Owings Mills.

"One of its main features is that you could walk in here as an able-bodied person and not realize that it's an accessible house," Mrs. Colvin said. "You don't feel like it's medical or institutional. . . . It's very beautiful-looking. . . . I could sell this house tomorrow."

Demand is growing for houses like the Colvins' that have a "universal design" that makes them accessible, attractive and appropriate for use by most people, said John Salmen, president of Universal Designers & Consultants Inc. Universal specializes in cost-effective ways to make buildings accessible. The firm is moving from Silver Spring to Rockville.

"Universal design means coming up with designs, details or spaces that everybody can use, regardless of their abilities," Mr. Salmen said. "It's housing designed for a lifetime."

A "universal solution" in a house might mean installing a full-length mirror that can be used by anyone, instead of a mirror over a sink that a very short person or someone in a wheelchair could not see. Or it could mean replacing doorknobs with levers so that everyone can use them, including people with disabilities or arthritis.

When universal solutions cannot be found, elements can be designed that are adaptable or adjustable, Mr. Salmen said. Closet shelves might be built so they can be raised for taller people or lowered for people who are short, have back problems or use a wheelchair, he said. Hand-held shower units can be mounted at the most convenient height. And grab bars can be added easily if the house has extra horizontal studs behind tiled bathroom walls.

"Housing can be designed from the outset so people won't have to move" as they age or become disabled, Mr. Salmen said. "One of the key concepts of accessibility is the disruption and trauma that is involved in relocation. We want to adapt the house to the changing characteristics of the individual."

Sometimes people avoid making helpful changes in their homes because they don't want to call attention to their physical limitations, said Elaine Ostroff, executive director of the Adaptive Environments Center, a non-profit organization in Boston. She also coordinates community and continuing education for the federally funded Center for Accessible Housing in Raleigh, N.C.

But products to make homes more accessible are available that are "elegant" and "good looking, not just specific-purpose items," she said. Universal design products also have safety features, such as slip-resistant floors, stoves with easy-to-grip controls and anti-scald valves for plumbing.

"More and more people are thinking about the concept of universal design," Ms. Ostroff said.

Douglas Marcus is president of Marcus Construction Inc., a Reisterstown firm that builds and remodels homes for seniors and disabled people.

"Many times people sell their homes and use the proceeds for an addition onto their children's homes called a parent apartment," he said.

"It has a complete kitchen, bathroom, living room and bedroom for privacy. It may even have an extra room in case the person ever needs live-in help. We customize our work exactly for the person and try to plan ahead and anticipate what they might need in the future."

The Colvin house was awarded a Barrier-Free Design Award by the governor's office in 1983 for its accessibility and style.

The home has a "great room," combining the kitchen, family room and dining room, which made it easier for Mrs. Colvin to care for her children when they were younger.

Hallways are six inches wider than standard halls so a wheelchair can roll through easily. Kitchen counter tops are lower and there are no cabinets under the stove or sink, so space is left for her wheelchair. The sink has a lever handle near the side edge.

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