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Designing Accessibility into the Home
by Dr. Oneida Cramer
Deep in a tangled forest lot, a 1925 English cottage-style house juts out over a rocky gorge where a small brook flows far below. And while water dams up behind an embankment of boulders and then spills over and streams circuitously in the low lying creek bed, high up on the property plateau, a path curves precariously near the edge going inward from the street toward the front door of the home.
Originally designed by architect/artist Guy Cahoon, the cottage has undergone numerous revisions that include landscape architect Henry Lambert and architect Frank Ryburn and most recently, architect Dan Shipley, who completed an extensive addition to the ground floor level. Today, despite a much larger footprint, the remodeled home retains the original character of a mountain-air, English-scale cottage in a surprisingly new way as visitors experienced recently during the Tour of Homes Along the Katy Trail, Off the Beaten Path, presented by the Dallas Architectural Foundation.
For the architectural design integrates not only a sense of adventure imbued from the surrounding landscape but also features for accessibility and the anticipation of changing needs for aging and the elderly in the overall plan.
?I?m just doing this nice project and this aspect that they?re aging is just part of it,? said Dan Shipley.
?We had a really nice house that was very much some kind of object complete to it?s own self. And we had to build a significant narrow connection between all the additions and the original house. The connection is a narrow neck and it runs for a distance, and it?s lined on one side by windows and on the other side by a wall, which eventually is going to be full of photographs.?
While the connection takes on the shape of a gallery/hallway overlooking the backyard gardens and swimming pool, for all practical purposes the structure is a wheelchair ramp that connects the new master bedroom suite to the main floor of the house.
?The area was perfect for the ramp being part of the design because it has this view on one side,? Shipley said. ?And the ramp doesn?t take up the full width of the space. The ramp takes up two-thirds of the width and there?s a drop to the lowest level, a place where plants can be brought in to fill up that space. So, the ramp becomes an organized feature of the house instead of something you?re trying to hide.?
?The same thing with the carport,? Shipley said. ?When you come out this side entrance, there are steps down and a ramp meets to take you up to the carport level.?
?We could have raised the addition up a foot and done away with the ramp,? Shipley said. ?But it would have created a lot of problems as far as the proportions of that house being one more foot out of the ground. The addition was probably 70 feet long and the ground grade was changing further out?going higher and higher.?
?You?ve got to plan out where the floor level is going to be in the extremes,? Shipley said. ?I can?t stress how much you really have got to be thorough with taking the elevations all through the property so that you know the reality of the property?how the drainage works and all these kinds of things.?
?Nobody has really considered the ramp to be a design for a good architect,? Shipley said. When building ramps, which always require railing, design more often tries to match ramp railings with the stairway railing. Stairs, however, project vertically in contrast to ramps, which extend horizontally outward for so long that, when they carry stair-like railings, they tend to look heavy and often dominate the architecture of the buildings. Ramps can be designed in such a way as to give buildings a greater visual emphasis, according to Shipley. And the more successful designs often stress proportion and scale along with an innovative use of materials to achieve the effects.
?We tried to make the main floor plan, their bedrooms, bathrooms, closet, to the garage and carport, to the kitchen, to the living rooms?all prime living areas?something that could be accessed with a wheelchair. But there are also some steps down to a little viewing area.? With plenty of grab space, these steps are maneuverable for mobile people, even for a somewhat frail person
In fact, the viewing area is flanked by two sets of steps and in between a short walkway that?s wide enough to accommodate storage on the side opposite a large 12 ft tall by 8 ft wide window overlooking the backyard. This viewing space connects the living room on one side of the kitchen with a sitting area on the other side of the kitchen, which also opens above the counter level directly onto the window and viewing area.
?The window, though it?s five feet from the kitchen counter, seems like it blends into the kitchen,? Shipley said. Originally, the kitchen was dismal with only a little window high up on the wall such that you couldn?t see any of the yard?only the trees a little bit. And separating the kitchen from the backyard were a small silver storage room and a bar on the lower level. So, Shipley blasted out part of the kitchen wall and the two rooms and then added the large window, which resembles, but does not match the steel casement windows that were already in the home.
?Steel windows are expensive,? Shipley said. ?I used a standard window, but detailed it in a way to sort of seem like the steel windows. It works.?
?Matching materials doesn?t guarantee the success,? Shipley said. Just matching can end up in a mess because simply adding material changes the proportion of the original structures, and can potentially muddy the design.
?I mention one other thing that people will appreciate as they get older,? Shipley said. ?The quality of natural light has to be really good.? As eyesight fails, the brightness of spaces becomes a lot more important. ?So, you figure out ways to capture and distribute the light really well.?
Besides a large triangular porch deck built off one side of the kitchen, the cottage also has a laundry room addition built on stilt cantilevers and jutting out over the canyon as it courses toward the back of the house.
?I think one of the best rooms in the house,? Shipley said about the laundry. ?It?s 18 ft wide, and it?s the highest place. And it has great views down into the front canyon. It?s very understated; but it?s a great place to wash clothes.?
Dr. Oneida Cramer
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