Universal Design

Universal Design Makes a Mid-century Home Accessible

More space for wheelchairs, easier access to appliances and a curbless shower fit a Seattle family’s needs

This article was written by:

This home tour is about beautiful design that also considers the mobility needs of all the family members — two of whom are wheelchair users. When architect Carol Sundstrom‘s client, wheelchair user and accessibility consultant Karen Braitmayer, reached an impasse in coming up with ways to expand her Eichler-inspired mid-century home, she sought Sundstrom’s expertise. “She and her husband were resigned to building a second story for more square footage. But I said, ‘Wait a second. What if you try this?’ Until finally she asked me to spearhead the structural modification part of the renovations,” says Sundstrom.Like doctors, architects have specialty areas. “Mine happens to be a firm understanding of wood-framed-home modifications,” Sundstrom says. “And my architect-client’s happens to be universal design.”Houzz at a Glance
Who lives here: Karen Braitmayer; her husband, David Erskine; and their daughter, Anita
Location: Seattle
Size: 1,830 square feet
Design challenge: Creating more living spaces in the interior without going beyond the home’s existing footprint. “Adding a second story would have ruined the architectural character of the home and required multiple elevator trips a day,” notes Sundstrom.
At first glance you might miss the universal design features of the open kitchen. But look closer and you’ll see how the pedestal table allows for maximum knee space and seating configurations.The Miele dishwasher to the right of the sink allows for one-hand operation, and its controls require minimum pressure and “squeeze” to operate. The controls are positioned between 15 and 48 inches above the floor, and all racks have front access.Cabinetry: custom, Contour Woodworks; cabinet pulls: Mockett; floor: clear-stained red oak; dropped can lights: Progress Lighting
This angle lets you appreciate the different heights of the granite counter and tabletop. “Not all wheelchair users have the same needs. Karen and her daughter, also a wheelchair user, have different arm-reach lengths and different torso heights, so we took their needs into account,” says Sundstrom.Although some may disagree with the cooktop placement and its lack of undersurface knee space, Sundstrom stands by the placement. “If we got rid of the drawers and allowed for knee space, we would increase the chances of spilling hot, often boiling water onto someone’s lap. The side approach to the cooktop just works out better,” she says. A low-profile grill top lets Karen see into as much of her casseroles as her height permits.Sink: Kollmar sheet metal; faucet: Kohler; cooktop: Fisher
BEFORE: An enormous fireplace mass (see edge at right) and the mechanical room behind it took up lots of mostly stagnant space. The builder’s team moved the mechanical room to the exterior wall, where it has double doors to the back patio for access. They got rid of the fireplace entirely.”The family had to do this complicated dance around each other, even with just two people in the kitchen,” says Sundstrom. “Something had to change.”
AFTER: The team moved the custom cabinetry and built-in units back, expanding the kitchen and making room for “four wheels, two feet — and more when entertaining,” Sundstrom says.The kitchen was transformed into the new center of the house with its increase in wheelchair-turning radius. And the space is even more joyful with the flood of sunlight coming in from unadorned windows.”This house is remarkably bright and cheery inside, even in the winter — a rare thing in rainy Seattle,” says Sundstrom. A Nelson saucer pendant and Risom lounge chair fit the home’s midcentury modern roots.
A pullout, built-in tabletop is another surface for placing kitchen appliances, baking bowls and prep items on. Wide drawer and cabinet pulls allow easier opening and closing.
A side-opening oven door mounted at just the right height makes it easier to reach in (and pull things out of) the oven. Cooks can put hot plates and pots on a lowered countertop directly across from the oven. Notice the faucet on the side of the sink and how the sink is designed to be as deep as possible while leaving enough knee space underneath.
A family room lets the family entertain overnight guests; the oversize chair turns into a sleeper with ease. “It was hard for them to house guests before, because the family room was open and exposed; there wasn’t any privacy,” says Sundstrom.
Wide pulls and accessible drawers provide loads of storage for the entire family, and …
… the area can become a flexible workstation and reading area.
Curbless transitions make going into the exterior living spaces and bathroom easy.
“I love how the countertop is on exactly the same level in the master bath. Karen was the one who came in and did much of the fine-tuning — she knows best what she and her husband and daughter need in the home,” says Sundstrom. David’s vessel sink works for his standing height, and Karen’s semirecessed sink works for her seated height.Sinks: Duravit
The shower has a curbless entry, marked here by the white shower curtain.”Anytime that a client with unique needs can come home to a place that they can use with ease without feeling like they’re in a nursing home — without losing their identity — if we’ve achieved that in a project, then we’ve done our job. I think we were able to do it with this home,” says Sundstrom.Toilet: Toto

Universal design purists may take issue with the detached wooden stool in the shower, but Sundstrom points out that although Karen uses a wheelchair, she is not entirely wheelchair bound. “The stool, grab bar and control placement work for her specifications. She has brittle bones and can’t walk without putting herself in a really fragile situation, but she can pull herself into and out of her wheelchair. She’s a powerhouse of a lady,” says Sundstrom.