Inspirational Design Meets the Accessibility Challenge

This week features my friend, guest blogger and fellow Rotarian,  Karl Damitz, Principal Architect and owner of FourFold Design.

Over the past 10 years of my professional practice working as an architect in and around Boston, some of my most challenging and rewarding projects have involved clients with physical disabilities. The integration of thoughtful design solutions that address the specific needs of a client with limited mobility can have a profound impact on his or her life.

The Americans with Disabilities Act has proven to be an important step in creating more equality for people with disabilities. The act mandates that all public buildings be designed for ease of use by persons with many kinds of disabilities. However, it has also created a stigma around accessible design. The design quality of many, if not most, public accessibility projects is very poor. When considering accessibility for a private residence, the design challenges are completely unique, with little relationship to the ADA guidelines that have been laid out for public work.

In residential design, the challenges of designing a space that meets these far more specific set of challenges and conditions very often means that traditional solutions and guidelines are ineffective. Products and standards that are marketed for accessibility uses are typically more clinical in nature and reflect a ‘hospital surplus’ aesthetic that has little relevance in the realm of residential design. For the residential market, a sterile and clinical renovation that simply addresses accessibility from a functional perspective could result in a reduction of property value and turn off potential buyers, ultimately limiting the pool of potential buyers.

The key to a successful residential design project that accommodates and supports a homeowners’ physical needs, while maintaining or increasing market value, is the integration of specific, design-focused solutions that emphasize the owners’ personality and style, rather than emphasizing their disability. A purely functional and prescriptive approach often results in a space that fails to engage the homeowner and, instead, becomes a constant reminder of their physical limitations. The true value of great design work—the key to a successful, accessible residential project—is to deliver a product that addresses the practical needs of the homeowner, without revealing or highlighting this need to the casual visitor.

This shower is barrier-free (no curb) and has a removable shower head whose anchor can double as a grab bar.

Achieving truly exceptional design in this arena requires a process that considers every component for its practical and aesthetic value. A ramp should no longer be viewed as a functional element that connects two different levels, but as part of the experience of moving through the house. It should fit comfortably and flow naturally.

In the end, the best design solutions for an accessible home must meet the functional design requirements of the project.  The most successful project is one that seamlessly integrates design solutions and emphasizes the identity and style of the homeowner far more than the disability that it has been designed to accommodate.

Learn more about FourFold Design.

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