Designing a modern home with accessibility in mind
By DAVE LEBLANC, Special to The Globe and MailT
he oldest baby boomers turn 70 this year. And while that may be the new 55 for some, many will face tough decisions in the coming decade.
Toughest of all will concern housing. A fiercely independent, rebellious generation will not go quietly to Whispering Pines Home for the Aged. No, just as rules were broken and society turned on its ear a half century ago, how – and where – we age in the 21st century is due for an overhaul.
“Wait a minute, I can’t go up three flights of stairs everyday, and I’m in shape and I eat properly,” says 69-year-old architect Don Loucks of his generation. “They are the market, and they have the wherewithal to change things.”
“But universal design has a whole template of things, but [developers] don’t build that way,” adds his client, University of Toronto professor James Retallack. “There are eight steps up to the front door, and doorways are too narrow.”
Prof. Retallack should know. Born with a spinal cord injury, the German history expert spent most of his life on crutches because of “almost no motor control” of his right leg, and “just enough” of his left to stand and propel himself. By age 55, however, the now 61-year-old says torn rotator cuffs meant it was time to move to a wheelchair.
The problem, however, was that the Port Credit home he shared with oboist Helen Graham wasn’t built with accessibility in mind, and being confined to one floor wasn’t going to fly for someone who “climbed mountains” in his 20s and spent countless hours as an award-winning coxswain. Luckily, one of his rowing-mates was Mr. Loucks of Metropolitan Design Ltd.
A two-year search for a property to retrofit for an elevator (that was also near public transit for Ms. Graham) turned up “three places that were vaguely suitable,” says Prof. Retallack, so the friends switched to looking for a tear-down. They found it in the form of a tired old bungalow backing onto Mimico Creek in Etobicoke’s Sunnylea neighbourhood that came down in August 2014.
Today, a handsome, sturdy-looking, two-storey home dressed in maintenance-free stucco and cedar greets passersby. Only those who pause to consider the lack of steps at the front door or the automatic snow-melting driveway might clue in to homeowner mobility issues. And that’s the point, Mr. Loucks says. “What we’re trying to do is keep accessibility as just a background – like a colour – instead of a foreground thing.”
That backgrounding continues inside. Sure, the foyer is generously proportioned and the hallway to the family room, dining room and kitchen at the rear of the home is extra-wide, but what visitors will really notice is the natural light spilling in from big, triple-glazed windows. They’ll walk right by the door to the garage without realizing it has been meticulously positioned to line up with the deployable ramp on Prof. Retallack’s van. The only tipoff that one of the hallway doors opens to an elevator is the small round button beside it. And who’d ever notice that light-switches are positioned a little lower and electrical outlets a little higher?
The living room looks like any other. The only curiosity is a door leading to a small antechamber containing a motion-activated doggie-door for Cato, which then opens up to a room dedicated to a therapy pool.
Beyond the dining table, a gorgeous contemporary kitchen with Wolf stove and snazzy backsplash awaits any amateur chef; it’s the lowered island containing a second sink and an induction cook-top that suggests an empty-nester couple with a distinct set of circumstances cooks together here.
In the basement – a reinforced concrete box because the home sits on a floodplain – you’d have to possess eagle eyes to spot the emergency exit: outside an operable window is a steep, ladder-type stair that leads to a weatherproof hatch at ground level. Should the power go out and the backup generator fail while the professor is working in his library (he has thousands of books), he “can pull himself up and roll out,” Mr. Loucks says.
The high baseboards throughout the home, explains Mr. Loucks, who spent time in Prof. Retallack’s wheelchair while designing the home, are made from hardwood so that when they’re bashed, a quick lick of paint restores them.
On the second floor, a flatscreen that rises from a cabinet at the foot of the bed in the master bedroom is a feature anyone would love. And who’d ever guess the large balcony was the result of a negotiation at city hall? “The [building] code says [a balcony] may not be larger than two meters by two meters,” explains Prof. Retallack, “so we said: How’s a power-wheelchair going to turn around with a chair and a table out there?’”
Indeed, a number of similar challenges came up while getting approvals at city hall, they say, because the beefier floor plan and therapy pool meant the home would need to be wider than others in the neighbourhood. Once the committee of adjustment (and concerned neighbours) understood that the home wasn’t going to be ostentatious, things proceeded somewhat effortlessly.
And while Mr. Loucks acknowledges the “huge learning curve” meant he spent about 10 per cent more time designing this home, he’s happy to have shed himself of the “invisibility of disability.”
“All of these lessons here, I keep thinking I can design smaller houses that are totally accessible for people who don’t want to leave their neighbourhoods … I think there’s a whole field here that’s growing.”