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Universal Design Showcase

Project Information

Universal Design Options Showcased in Model Home

It's an uncomfortable thought, but the longer we live, the more likely we are to develop physical limitations. In fact, one out of six Americans will experience a major disability during their lifetime. And it's no secret that America is aging significantly – by 2012, there will be more people aged 65 and older than in all the other age categories combined. These figures make it easy to see the growing need for universally accessible living accommodations that enable people to live independently.

Surprisingly, the burgeoning consumer need for accessible housing has not resulted in a proliferation of accessible single-family residences. It was this very absence that prompted Wayne Geurink and his nonprofit group, Chairs & Cares, to develop a demonstration model accessible home in Wausau, Wisconsin.

Officially opened in October 2007, the Chairs & Cares Model Accessible Home was designed by Roger Plamann, an architectural instructor at Wausau's Northcentral Technical College (NTC), with input from a 16 person advisory board. General contractor Keller Builders started construction on the 4,700-square-foot, $1.2 million project, which is sited on the college's campus, in Spring 2006. The prototypical residence is operated by Midstate Independent Living Consultants, a nonprofit agency that serves people with disabilities in north-central and northeastern Wisconsin.

Virtually all of the model home design elements and building components were donated. Committed to the project from its earliest stages, Kolbe & Kolbe Millwork Co. contributed 51 windows, 21 interior doors and entry doors. "Kolbe was the very first contributor to sign on to the project," says Geurink. "We were very impressed with their enthusiasm and commitment, and their superior products provide the design and operation flexibility that accessible design demands," says Geurink.

"Wayne and his team have done an outstanding job with this model accessible home," praises Mike Salsieder, president of Kolbe & Kolbe. He comments that "as an organization, Kolbe is sensitive to the fact that there are many people with physical limitations and that a significant portion of our population is aging. We were privileged to be able to work with Wayne, and members of NTC, as well as other companies in our area to help provide a facility that showcases construction methods that allow people with physical limitations to live independently within a residential setting."

Geurink suffered paralyzing injuries from a car accident in 1991. In 2001, the idea for the Chairs & Cares Model Accessible Home came to him during discussions among members of a spinal cord injury group. He discovered that there wasn't a single example of a universally-designed accessible residence in the central Wisconsin area. The home is intended to give architects and builders ideas about what can be done to make new or remodeled homes more functional for people with physical limitations.

The project has already made an impression on at least one builder: Lewis Reeves, president of Lewis Reeves Homes in Atlanta, who says, "I've been building houses for 30 years. Until I met Wayne, I had no idea where I'd turn – professionally or personally – to help someone with a physical disability to live as comfortably and independently as possible."

"Surveys show that most of us want to remain in our own homes as we age. Enabling more people to live on their own for as long as possible means huge dollar savings for individuals, families and for society as a whole," says Geurink. "To people with low strength and/or less control of their upper body, an inch here or there can make the difference between dependence and independence," Geurink adds.

Navigating doors and doorways, and opening and closing windows are among the biggest challenges for people with limited mobility. Throughout the model home, quality casement windows enable operation for a person with limited strength. Larger crank handles make windows easier to open and close. Oversized lever locks are located near window bottoms, making them more convenient to secure. For bay windows, locks were placed closer to the interior and motorized operators were installed to make operation accessible for people in wheelchairs.

Geurink notes that accessible windows aren't just about operability, but enjoyment, too. The windows have a maximum sill height of 33 inches, allowing viewing from a seated position. "Variety in window types is also important, which is why the home has some floor-to-ceiling windows. These allow for an unobstructed view, as well as letting in lots of light.

To make entry and exit easier, the home's exterior doors feature a flush-to-floor sill. Engineered into the door frames as integral components, the sills ensure that the level of the finished floors align with the thresholds for wheelchair accessibility. People using crutches, canes, or walkers also benefit from the flush thresholds.

All of the exterior and interior doors are wider than usual (36 inches) to comfortably accommodate passage by people in wheel chairs. Interior swinging doors are fitted with lever handles, making them easier for people with limited dexterity to operate than doors with knobs or latch handles. The utility closet door is not only oversized, it has an additional pull bar mounted to its surface to make it easier to close.

Similarly, the closets feature double doors and bi-fold doors, making them easier to open and close for people with restricted mobility and diminished hand strength. Pocket doors provide unobstructed interior openings to a laundry and bathroom.

The windows and exterior doors all feature energy-efficient LoE²-270 glass with double glazing and weatherstripping to prevent draft and temperature variations. For minimal exterior maintenance, the Ultra Series windows are finished in hartford green 70% fluoropolymer, and are trimmed in oak to match the interior doors' classic look.

  • Chairs & Cares, non-profit group for accessible design
  • Roger Plamann, architect / architectural instructor at North Central Technical College
  • Keller Builders, general contractor

NOTE: Visitors to Kolbe's facilities in Wausau, Wisconsin may inquire about a tour of the Chairs & Cares Accessible Model Home, which is operated by Midstate Independent Living Consultants, a nonprofit agency serving people with disabilities in north-central and northeastern Wisconsin

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