Accessible design has evolved to become user-friendly, safe — and beautiful
Julia Dorsett's vision for the remodel was that “it would all be beautiful with touches of accessibility here and there that you wouldn’t even notice.”
For Julia Dorsett, looking at properties for sale is a fun hobby. When she saw an 18th-century stone farmhouse listed in Chester County, she instantly fell in love with the 3½-acre wooded property. The home, situated on a hill, has large picturesque windows with stunning views of a big rolling lawn.
Though she initially couldn’t imagine a three-story farmhouse giving her the accessibility needed to accommodate her wheelchair, she brought in an architect with the hope that she could install an elevator.
“A farmhouse was honestly never in the cards because they usually are so inaccessible,” recalled Dorsett, who became a paraplegic in a car accident in 1987 when she was 19. “But I knew instantly in looking at it that everything that was inaccessible, I could change. The land was the start, and the house was an added bonus.”
In 2016, she had the Kennett Square house renovated to accommodate her wheelchair while keeping much of the home’s original integrity in place.
“I’ve been disabled for over 30 years, and I’ve always been independent,” said Dorsett, who played tennis in the Athens Paralympics in 2004 and was on the U.S. sailing team from 2006 to 2012. Her vision for the remodel was that “it would all be beautiful with touches of accessibility here and there that you wouldn’t even notice.”
With the help of architect Richard Buchanan of Archer & Buchanan Architecture in West Chester, she installed an elevator, turned the dining room into the kitchen to create more space to maneuver her wheelchair, added a balcony outside her bedroom, and installed a roll-in shower.
“I put motion lights on every floor, so every time I come out of the elevator, no matter what time of day, the lights come on,” said Dorsett, who shares her home with two dogs and two cats. She also moved light switches lower and outlets higher, something she thinks makes sense in all homes.
Thirty years since the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990, an abundance of attractive, convenient design features are finding their way into many homes, even when the homeowner doesn’t have an existing disability. For some, it’s a desire to age in place, while for others, it’s an appreciation for new designs that are stylish, affordable, and accessible to all.
“The ADA does not apply at all to residential housing,” said Nancy Horton, information specialist for the Mid-Atlantic Americans with Disabilities Act Center, based in Rockville, Md. Guidelines for individual homes come from the Fair Housing Act. But, she said, the ADA has brought a greater awareness to accessibility and inspired many conveniences and attractive designs.
“Fifty years ago, accessibility had an institutional look,” she said. “But that’s not the case any longer. It’s a combination of being more user-friendly and safer.”
Dorsett’s home design merges accessibility and beauty. The kitchen counter is now beneath the window sill — the perfect height for her needs, but also giving her a beautiful wooded view while she cooks. She installed an island made from reclaimed wood from her attic. A low table sits on one side, while on the other, she installed a dishwasher and a country sink that sits a bit lower than a typical sink.
She especially needed to rely on her builder before the elevator was installed because she couldn’t oversee any of the projects on the second floor or attic. “My dad would carry me up periodically, but that was a drag,” she recalled.
And some projects had to be tweaked as they went along. “They dug the elevator pit, and then realized that the attic didn’t have enough height, so they had to build a dormer,” she said. “Now I have a dormer out of the attic with two little windows that shine onto the HVAC system.”
Standard home features inspired by accessibility include pullout drawers within cabinets, handheld showers, levers for door and faucet handles, side-by-side refrigerators, and additional lighting.
“When we work with people who are 45 and older, we always say think 20 years down the road,” said Rob Mulloy, showroom manager of Grove Supply in Fox Chase, who encourages homeowners to prepare for possible physical issues that come with age. Suggestions include installing shower bases that are either curbless or have low thresholds, using faucet handles with levers rather than knobs, and installing grab bars in the shower.
“A lever is much easier to work than a knob, and now you can find beautiful levers without spending more money,” said Peter Archer of Archer & Buchanan Architecture, who added that aging in place is often a driving force in a home remodel.
“One-level living is probably the most basic, or if it’s more than one-level living, it involves an elevator,” he said. “We don’t necessarily put elevators in every home, but we stack five-foot by five-foot closets on top of each other for the future, being able to knock out the floor between them and install a residential elevator.”
Accessible home designs include limited steps, wider doorways to accommodate a walker or wheelchair, and easy-to-access transitions from inside to outside, including one or more exits with no steps.
Designers have come up with options for almost every room in the house. For more storage space in closets, clothes on a high rack can be lowered with a pull-down lever. In a kitchen, large drawers replace high shelves that can become difficult to reach.
“It’s important to build with sturdy materials that don’t disintegrate 15 years down the road,” Archer said. “When the 55-year-old client is 70, they don’t want to be replacing failing materials, but want to enjoy a home that gets better with age.”
Dorsett encourages homeowners to use an architect who works with specialized contractors. In her house, the professionals suggested touches that made a difference, such as copper flashing around the windows and upgraded gutters.
“Those little touches when you’re doing an addition add so much,” she said. “In older homes, that’s important to keep the integrity of the house and be able to work with what you have.”
While she appreciates all of the changes she made inside the house, the gorgeous property is still what she loves the most. “I named my property Riley’s Run after my dog, the reason I bought it,” she said.