Designing a Child-centered and Accessible Home

By Deborah Pierce, AIA, CAPS

In the accessible home, disabilities become abilities because barriers cease to exist. This is the possibility of the accessible home.

Photos by: Kathy Tarantola

Every parent is exceptional! Our kids challenge us to expand our limits – to be more patient, more tactful, more generous, and, when circumstances call for it, fiercer advocates. We juggle our jobs, housekeeping tasks, and care-giving with all the grace and intelligence we can muster. On top of these demanding responsibilities, when our child has a disability, we’re given a crash course in medical and legal issues where the stakes couldn’t be higher.

John and Katharine contacted me to help renovate their home when their daughter was six. Born with cerebral palsy, Jamie was unable to climb the stairway in the family’s two-story house and was becoming too heavy for John to carry. The building posed significant problems – floor level changes, narrow halls and doorways, tiny bathrooms – and the couple wanted a renovation that would increase Jamie’s independence by removing barriers to mobility. I asked the parents their goals for the project. Katharine said simply, “We want to feel like a normal family.”

My experience as an architect, renovating public buildings under the ADA, gave me a working knowledge of relevant codes and a deep appreciation of the ways that responsive design mitigates disabilities. At the same time, in working with many homeowners on renovation projects, I’ve come to really appreciate the ways that good design solves spatial and building problems, but also creates opportunities for families to bond and have fun together. As a parent I had a chance to adapt our house as the children moved from infancy through the teen years, and have a strong appreciation for flexible spaces that can be easily adapted.

Over the next several months I worked with John and Katharine and their children, discussing the activities they enjoyed, both individually and as a family, and also identifying the barriers and renovation needs presented by the house. I also spent time with Jamie, both at home and at school, where her terrific special education team or teachers and movement therapists shared their insights regarding Jamie, her condition, and her prognosis. As the design progressed, five principles emerged to guide decision-making from early planning through construction:

A. Plan for a child, plan for a teenager – kids grow up! Create adaptable designs.

B. Focus on the person, not just the gadgets. How are everyday activities like eating, dressing, toileting, and bathing handled? Not every activity has an adaptive device, and people are infinitely creative in finding ways to accomplish necessary tasks.

C. Think beyond mobility limitations. Hearing, speech, and vision loss, cognitive and dexterity impairments are equally important factors in an accessible home.

D. Design for abilities as well as disabilities. Create places for favorite activities such as hobbies, pastimes, and games.

E. Plan for the whole family. Happy, self-reliant children reduce parental stress, leaving more energy for care-giving and more time for enjoying each other.

These principles proved to be equally useful for both the big-picture thinking and micro-detailing that characterize the design process. A bathroom, for example, needs to work on many levels – a convenient location, a layout with space to move about, and fixtures that are comfortable to use. Each room has these same three requirements, and taken together, the whole house needs to function smoothly and consistently. Design is a team effort, collaborative and interdependent. The architect’s/designer’s job is to give form to the homeowner’s dreams, and to express this graphically in drawings and verbally in specifications. The client’s job is to articulate goals – states as lifestyle, values, habits, wishes, schedule, and budget. The contractor’s job is to coordinate a team of subcontractors, suppliers, permitting authorities, applying a knowledge of building technology to achieve the results described in drawings and specs.

John and Katharine’s house was a modest three-bedroom Colonial on a quiet suburban street terminating at a city-owned conservation area. With friendly neighbors and a great school system, the couple knew they wanted to improve their house rather than move or build from scratch. Though the yard was steeply sloped, it had a flat area to the east where a family room addition could be built, triggering modifications to the adjacent existing rooms. For all these reasons, the bulk of our design work focused on renovations. Ten design decisions stand out as critical to the project’s success, and stand as a road-map for families seeking to create their own accessible child-centered home.

1. Design a welcoming entrance. Whether arriving home at the end of the day or visiting for the first time, we form lasting impressions based on the experience of entering. Is the home inviting or do we feel we are intruding? Make stairs that fit a person’s gait. Place handrails at just those places where a little support seems considerate. Provide a covered landing for weather protection. Make sure there’s enough light, but avoid glare that can make it hard to see.

2. Simplify horizontal travel. Activity areas in most homes are linked by hallways and separated by walls and doors, and so horizontal travel is a necessity throughout the day. Is the path of travel pleasant and convenient? We gain useable space by removing interior walls, but when these are load-bearing, they’ll need to be replaced by beams – a modification that’s usually worth the investment. Widen halls and dooorways. Go with pocket and sliding doors. Eliminate walls. The result is shorter pathways, more daylight, natural ventilation, and visual connections between activity areas.

3. Improve vertical travel. Stairs make sense in the gym, but they make the home hazardous. Steep stairs, insufficient handrails, narrow landings, and poor lighting – these are commonplace in many homes. Placement is everything when it comes to adding lifts, ramps, and elevators – unless these are convenient to use and well integrated into the design of the home, they can be costly and cumbersome, not to mention unsightly. And nobody wants to broadcast to potential intruders that the homeowner is physically vulnerable. So install sturdy handrails both sides of stairways. Mark tread edges and landings with contrasting colors and good lighting so that people don’t get tripped up by transitions. Place lifts and elevators near stairways to reduce the length of hallways.

4. Provide a variety of living spaces. We do more than live and dine at home, but these are still the main shared spaces in most houses. We can do better! How about a crafts space? Yoga, anyone? Do you play an instrument or family games? What about a shop, library, gym, or homework center? As you plan room layouts, size the spaces for wheelchairs – or even groups of wheelchairs, when friends are visiting. Install built-in furnishings so that people can lean on something sturdy while standing.

5. Design efficient, user-friendly kitchens. Children gain independence and useful life skills in the kitchen. Parents attend to their family’s well-being by preparing nurturing meals. A house’s character may be homespun, but high-tech kitchens connote good living. We like our fridges cold, our ovens calibrated, and our counters and cooktops clean. For many families, the kitchen is Mission Control, where the days’ activities are hashed-out over a quick breakfast or while cooking. When work surfaces are at comfortable heights and storage is within reach, physical stress is reduced and kitchen safety is enhanced. Create an ergonomically-correct kitchen by measuring your own comfort ranges. Provide child-focused and child-sized meal prep and eating areas. Choose appliances that are easy to use and to maintain. A kitchen is a big investment and part of the fabric of the house, so plan carefully and you’ll reap the rewards for many years.

6. Make bedrooms that enhance sleeping. Insufficient sleep is a national epidemic, and good health starts with a comfortable bedroom. In addition to comforting bedtime rituals (a story, a prayer, a song), the design itself can contribute to a good night’s sleep. Control lights from the bed and the doorway to reduce the risks of walking in the dark. Use non-slip rugs with secured edges. If allergies are a problem, choose wood floors rather than rugs or synthetics. Choose passage-set door hardware so kids don’t inadvertently lock themselves in. To help children develop self-sufficiency, design child-sized dressing facilities (benches, coat-rods, shoe-racks) and clothing storage (shelving within reach, easy-glide drawers).

7. Design safe bathrooms. Bathrooms are where most falls occur in the home, so why do we have shiny floors and hard-surfaced plumbing fixtures? Designers need to balance ease of cleaning with safety! Lay out the bathroom with just a little more space so there’s room for two – expanding into the adjacent bedroom closet if needed. Slope shower floors to a drain and avoid raised curbs – they’re dust collectors and tripping hazards. Use wall-hung and pedestal sinks to allow leg-room for chair users. Install tilting mirrors that adjust to people of all heights. Install grab-bars, securely mounted to solid blocking (safety handles aren’t just for grandparents, as more young people fall getting out of the tub or shower). Place robe-hooks and towel bars where they’re most convenient to avoid injury.

8. Pay attention to design of utility areas – the extra spaces that can be easily overlooked in a home improvement project – places for laundry, dog-washing, kitty litter-boxes, and general cleanup. Kids learn to take responsibility for themselves and to participate in family chores with well-designed utility spaces. Place pet supplies in easy reach. Make a child-friendly space for cleaning supplies like dustpan and brush, broom and rags, simple tools. Isolate dangerous products with child-safety hardware. Store hazardous materials behind locked doors.

9. Offer a variety of safe outdoor places. Whether you have a big yard or small balcony, access to fresh air and a connection with nature has health benefits. Children learn about the environment from observing plants, wildlife and insects. They learn cooperation from sharing play equipment and sports. Good design encourages both passive and active recreation with accessible yards, decks, porches, and patios. Make an accessible path of travel between the house and public way – or just around the yard, using a paved walkway or boardwalk. Use landscaping to provide shade or invite sunlight into the yard. Complement daylight with artificial lighting for safe travel at night.\

10. Pay attention to the details. Every choice is a decision – and trusting your builder or designer to select materials is a decision to cede control over essential matters of raising children. We encourage a child to develop basic self-management skills by selecting cabinet hardware that allows him/her to put away toys easily. Wiring light fixtures to motion detectors allows a child to enter a room alone in the dark. Choosing non-glare paints and non-slip floors ensures good visibility for a child searching for his dad, or a mother keeping an eye on her child. The list of detail decisions on a home seems endless but, as with all aspects of a renovation project, taking the time to choose carefully can make the difference between missed opportunities and money well spent.

These principles and guidelines worked for John and Katharine in ways that couldn’t have been predicted at the start. Jamie’s siblings were more self-sufficient in a house where the kitchen was made more child-friendly and the laundry was moved from the basement to the second floor. As they required less parental attention, John and Katharine had more time to dedicate to Jamie’s needs. Jamie was more independent too, able to use the new elevator to move from the basement rec-room to the living areas, and from her bedroom to the bathroom using the wider hallways. These changes freed up time for the parents to relax and enjoy their children more – less work means more fun together.

About the Author:

Deborah Pierce, AIA, CAPS is an award-winning architect and author of The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages and Abilities (Taunton Press, October 2012). Principal of Pierce Lamb Architects in Newton MA, she has focused her practice on renovations of public buildings for ADA-compliance and also on creating family-centered homes for people of all ages and abilities. Through her writing, public speaking, and work with individual building owners, Deborah seeks to create a more-inclusive world where every person can contribute and be their best.

I wrote The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages and Abilities (The Taunton Press, October 2012) to share Jamie’s story. In the process I’ve been privileged to speak with many parents, homeowners, and architects, who have affirmed the value of these insights. Having a disability doesn’t mean being handicapped – in the accessible home, disabilities become abilities because barriers cease to exist. This is the possibility of the accessible home – a place where “normal” can finally happen!