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by Michael Chotiner, November 16, 2010
About a year ago, Jamie Hammill, 47, of Richfield, N.C., was leafing through AARP The Magazine while on a flight to a business meeting. She came across an announcement for AARP’s Recession Remodel Room Makeover Contest. AARP would arrange donations of appliances, fixtures and other building products along with designer and contractor services to two winners. Entrants were asked to describe how remodeling a kitchen or a bath would help them or their families.
Jamie thought, “Why not enter?” Her father had recently died, and her mother, Judy, 67, was planning to retire from her job in Charleston, S.C., and move back into the house on the family farm where Judy had been born and raised — a house her father had built with his own hands in 1943. It was a good house, which they’d used on holidays and weekends for many years. But if Judy were going to live there full time, the kitchen would need updating.
Around the same time — but on the ground in Snohomish, Wash. — Mary Waggoner clipped the contest announcement from the AARP magazine, tacked it to the bulletin board above her desk and thought, “I hope I get around to entering this.”
Mary’s eightysomething parents had recently moved from their log house in the Montana wilderness into a one-room apartment in an adult community in Mary’s town. They’d had to. Mary’s mother, Louise, afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, is confined to a wheelchair. Her father, Clarence, who had had hip and knee replacements, uses a walker and a cane to get around. His eyesight was failing, too, as a result of macular degeneration.
Bath Design Issues
Mary knew that they were safe at the adult home during the week, while she worked at a demanding job; most weekends, she cared for her parents in her own home. But that routine was going to have to change unless she did something about one of her bathrooms. Her mother’s wheelchair wouldn’t fit through the bathroom door. More than once they’d had to call 911 to get help lifting Mary’s mother when she had fallen trying to get from the doorway to the toilet. Nor could her parents bathe
at her house since neither could safely step over the side of the tub.
“I had called a couple of building contractors hoping they could suggest solutions,” Mary says, “but after having a look, nobody called back. I figured I had three choices — get a different house, spend a lot of money on the one I own or stop having Mom and Dad over.”
The AARP Room Makeover Contest gave Mary another choice. She shot some photos of her existing bath and mailed them off with her story just before the deadline. “When an overnight package from AARP arrived on the porch a few weeks later, I knew we had won,” she says.
What Is Universal Design?
As part of their awards, both winners worked with interior designers who specialize in universal design, which is a broad-spectrum architectural approach to creating environments that are comfortable and accessible for both the able-bodied and disabled. Universal design involves consideration of many factors, including aesthetics, engineering options, environmental issues, industry standards, safety concerns and cost.
“Before I met the universal design specialists,” says Mary, “I was familiar with the term ‘handicapped access.’ I thought all we could do with the bathroom would be to put in a wheel-in shower, a comfort-height toilet and lots of grab bars. But there’s been a paradigm shift from
‘accessible’ to ‘universal’ design. I thought I’d get an institutional, hard-looking, antiseptic cell. Instead, I got a beautiful bath.”
Mary notes that in predesign meetings, the designers measured her and her parents’ bodies “every-which way” — standing height, seated height, arms, legs, reach and grasp — to develop profiles of their physical capacities and balance the design for all who would use the bathroom. But they also asked to look at Mary’s furnishings and other possessions to understand her style and taste.
“One of the designers noticed that I had an old salvaged tile painted in a way that recalls the work of the artist Gustav Klimt,” Mary recalls. ” It became the centerpiece of the mosaic on the shower wall.”
“The Klimt tile is really my favorite feature of Mary’s new bath,” says Michelle Molloy of Penates Design in Seattle. “But my specialty is lighting, color and space planning, which are the key to independent living for people with low vision.” Molloy developed a “layered” lighting
design with adjustable features that can be tuned to each family member’s needs. It incorporates both ambient and nonglare task lights. Sophisticated controls enable the family to set any of four different lighting “scenes”— from low level to bright — with the touch of a single switch.
Other members of Mary’s design and construction team included Mary Curley of InDesign Innovations in Seattle and builders Howard and Dana Chermak of Chermak Construction in Edmonds, Wash. The Chermaks are certified aging-in-place specialists (CAPS), a professional accreditation earned by completing a National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) training course. Besides builders, professionals such as architects, interior designers, occupational therapists and realtors can become CAPS.
The Role of CAPS
J.W. Flair of Flair and Sons in Concord, N.C., a CAPS builder who handled construction on Judy Hammill’s kitchen remodel, describes the special knowledge he gained through the NAHB course: “At first I thought it was going to be about widening doorways and building ramps for wheelchairs. But I came to learn that as builders, we need to learn to address a whole lot of other issues and conditions — including nonslip flooring to prevent falls, air purification and encapsulation of toxins and allergens for people with respiratory problems, better lighting for people with vision problems. We learned how to make buildings accessible for everyone — without making them ugly.”
Flair says, “It’s important for the builder to work with a good designer who knows universal design. It’s interesting to learn how many ways there are to skin a cat, design-wise. But it’s also important to interact with the people who’ll be living in the space to see which designs are most likely to suit them.”
Jennifer A. Thompson of Vestra Design Studio in Burlington, N.C., the lead designer on Judy’s kitchen project, says, “I volunteered to work on this project because it was an opportunity for me to promote awareness of universal design, which most consumers and builders don’t know much about. Universal design can make such a difference in the way people are able to use their homes.” Members of Judy’s team also included designers Amy Baucom and Calvin E. Hefner, both of Charlotte.
Universal Design in the Kitchen
Judy certainly developed an appreciation for what universal design specialists brought to her kitchen project. “My daughter Jamie and I had a pretty good idea of what we wanted the new kitchen to be like,” she says. They wanted more cabinets, more counter space and new appliances. Still, they wanted to retain the farmhouse feel — they didn’t want anyone touching the heart pine floor that Judy’s father had nailed down.
“The designers helped me 100 percent with selection of the appliances and cabinets. They know about a lot of things we would never imagine. Now I can’t imagine living without the universal design features in this kitchen. Everything’s so easy to reach. I don’t have to get down on my hands and knees to clean the bottom shelves of my refrigerator. I don’t have to take everything out of a cabinet to find things stored at the back of a shelf. And you know, I don’t have too many physical limitations right now, but if something comes along, I bet I’ll still be able to get by here on my own.”
Judy, who’s planning to cook Thanksgiving dinner for 20 this week (“by myself, I don’t let anyone in my kitchen”), says the project has been therapeutic. “My husband and I had always planned to move back to the farm when we retired. When he died after a year and a half of being sick — well, I was feeling very low.
“But it was a fun project. We loved the people, and I think they liked us. Now I feel like I’m starting over again back where my roots are. I’m fulfilling my husband’s wish. I’m looking forward to growing very old in my new kitchen.”
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