December 5, 2023

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Accessible design is growing. But can it be beautiful?

Accessible design is growing. But can it be beautiful?

It was nearly 30 years ago that the Americans With Disabilities Act established its accessibility guidelines to protect the rights of people with disabilities. Accessible design has grown up a lot since then.

Those standard design requirements for public, commercial and government facilities were a critical step for the ADA, governing such elements as wheelchair lifts, curb ramps and handrails. But as designers have begun to understand the vast — and growing — demand for accessible living, the concept has evolved from a practical matter to a complex idea about beauty, equity and what it means to live well.

Architects and designers who are disabled themselves have brought attention to the need for a more holistic approach than grab bars and wheelchair-accessible hallways, a more homey feel than hospital chic. And many businesses are simply looking to the future: “There’s a giant wave coming,” Seattle-area interior designer Melinda Sechrist says of the vast baby boomer generation, estimated at about 73 million, “and when the tip goes over, it’s only the top 5 to 7 percent who can afford a senior living facility.” Regardless of cost, many want to age at home.

But first, what exactly is accessible design? Officially called universal design, it refers to the design of buildings, products and environments that are accessible to everyone, regardless of age or ability. Other terms include “barrier-free” and “inclusive,” and for the most part they are used interchangeably.

“It’s really just thoughtful design,” says Karen Nichols, principal at Michael Graves Architecture & Design. The architect and her colleagues are continuing the work of their late mentor, who had to use a wheelchair after an illness in 2003 and became an advocate for accessibility. (Graves died in 2015.) “After Michael was paralyzed, we began to talk about design in a different way,” says Nichols, recalling the firm’s “roving office” that would travel to Graves’s bedside, seeing firsthand “the dysfunction and ugliness of health-care environments. He said, ‘We’re all architects and designers. We have a skill, we can do something.’ ”

Motionspot helped design a London penthouse for a wheelchair user that includes an elevator and plenty of circulation space. (Rachael Withernay)

Several of the firm’s prototypes for customizable walking sticks and shower systems were included in the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum’s 2017-18 exhibition “Access + Ability.” And last year the firm returned to a 2006 project, special-needs charter school St. Coletta of Greater Washington, to do a conceptual study and advise on alterations that use current practices and technologies to improve the physical, visual and acoustic environment. It’s also beginning Phase 2 of its Accessible Military Housing project with a site in Southern California. (Think garages that accommodate specialized vans, no thresholds, adjustable countertops, and windows designed for greater visibility to create feelings of security for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.)

For too long, Nichols says, the health-care field has focused on small fixes and failed to think about “the larger picture.” Putting it in today’s language, “it’s about wellness,” she says.

Other large offices are taking that approach, too. “Accessible design is an extension of wellness design, and it’s really taken off in the last five years,” says Lise Bornstein, a partner at KFA, a Los Angeles architectural firm known for creating progressive senior, affordable and veteran housing. “What we’re talking about is independence and dignity at home. Our architecture has to support our developers and the people they serve, both for their physical and mental health, and there are so many ways to do that beyond a barrier-free sink,” she explains. “Senior housing with porches, for example, provides a place to feel safe but not isolated, and unit doors can be clustered so neighbors can see and check on each other. It’s working with bigger concepts of equity, quality and support.”

Communal green spaces now regularly figure into the firm’s multiunit projects, as do pets. The firm has designed accessible dog-wash stations, and its forthcoming Safe Landing homeless shelter in the West Athens neighborhood of Los Angeles includes kennels. “Sometimes animals are a person’s only connection,” Bornstein says. “People are recognizing that pets are a piece of the health and wellness story.”

“It’s all about respect,” says Sechrist, who with design partner Louanne Low has been creating senior housing in the Pacific Northwest for 20 years. “Who wants to sit on vinyl and be reminded of their incontinence?” (“Oh, wow,” she adds with a laugh. “We never get to talk about incontinence in design stories!”)

The more we talk about it, discuss it and show it, the more solutions we’ll find,” interior designer Chad Dorsey says. “Accessibility is a lifestyle, and it can be beautiful and natural.”

The light-filled community room at Hayworth House in West Hollywood is “such a bright and happy place,” says Lise Bornstein of KFA. The project turned a 1950s apartment building into affordable senior housing. (Jim Simmons)

Dallas interior designer Chad Dorsey has watched the demand for barrier-free homes increase in the past five years. “It’s absolutely a growing part of my business. Boomers have watched their parents go to assisted living. That’s why they want to stay home. They don’t want to move; they want to have care coming in,” he explains. (A 2018 AARP study found that 76 percent of Americans age 50 and older want to remain in their current residence.) And in true Southern fashion, he sees accessibility through the lens of hospitality. “It starts outside with an ease of approach — something gracious,” he says: simple, elegant entrances that accommodate a wheelchair; shallow, illuminated steps with a handsome handrail; or a textured stone that provides traction. There are all sorts of ways to make a front door welcoming. “The more we talk about it, discuss it and show it, the more solutions we’ll find. Accessibility is a lifestyle, and it can be beautiful and natural.”

Sechrist and Low have navigated the field long enough to know lots of little tricks: Easy-to-clean indoor-outdoor fabrics are a common, and subtle, solution for incontinence issues. More subtly patterned rugs can reduce motion sickness or issues stemming from balance disorders, and with just a few changes to proportion and seat material, an accessible armchair looks no different from a “normal” one.

They’ve persuaded hesitant homeowners to install roll-in showers by presenting them as super-chic wet rooms, and they’ve even played the “in case your parents come to stay” card. All in good humor, of course, and with concern for their clients’ well-being. “But we do have younger clients, 50 and under, who really think about it now. Reality is setting in,” says Low, mentioning a home the firm designed to accommodate an elevator and a ground-floor family room that can morph into a master suite. They also like to back drywall with plywood so that reinforcements are in place when it’s time to add grab bars. Sounding more like a financial adviser, Sechrist cautions, “Just look ahead. Illness, injury and accidents happen. It’s good to be able to adapt.”

Los Angeles designer Drew Lage learned that lesson firsthand; he was diagnosed with leukemia in 2013 and through complications lost both legs. “I lived in a hospital for a year, devoid of any dignity and any aesthetic, and rarely got outdoors,” he recalls. Bringing in lamps and silk flowers was heartening, but he hasn’t forgotten “how anti-aesthetic and anti-comfort it was.” But going home wasn’t easy, either. His apartment no longer functioned for him, and he needed to move, ultimately settling into the Emerson in downtown Los Angeles.

The exterior of a home Chad Dorsey designed in Dallas. It features an office with no-step entry and a three-foot-wide doorway to accommodate any future accessibility needs for the homeowner. (Stephen Karlisch)

“Some companies are thinking ahead. All of their builds are accessible, and they do an incredible job. Their designs feel gracious and intentional. All the doors are 36 inches wide, and bathrooms have enough space, plus tactile things like wallpapers and door casings help you find your way if you can’t see,” he says. “There were a lot of disabled people in the building, but able-bodied people, too. It was so social.” And although he has since moved, he’s still championing the building’s efforts to make inclusive design both contemporary and normal.

“What they’re doing is really cool,” Lage says, adding that it’s an approach he would like to see embraced more broadly and functionally. “I was in Paris last year for Maison & Objet and going to seminars about thoughtful design, but getting around was a nightmare — stepping off uneven curbs, and half the museums don’t have accessibility. It’s just not something they take into consideration.” And while there are progressive, high-tech companies bringing real change to people’s lives (Lage describes a visit to German prosthetics manufacturer Ottobock as “a cross between a BMW design studio and a Lady Gaga video — innovative, sexy and stylish”) the reality is that daily life is a constant challenge. “Germany was an eye-opening experience. Thoughtful and well-engineered designs but no real standards for living. There’s a disconnect.”

Lage’s experience has given him new perspective, and as his business grows, he wants to make universal design a greater focus. He recently helped a Pasadena couple transition from a large property to an accessible condo that will comfortably see them into their later years. “I’ve started to feel that the industry is a little superficial,” he says. “I resent the amount of energy placed on minutiae or client meltdowns over a design detail. It’s just hard to go back to trivial things.”

Nicole Fuller designed an accessible, low-maintenance wet room for a Manhattan client. (Nicole Fuller Interiors)

As far as accessibility has come, designers still say the furnishings market, especially kitchen and bath, lacks enough well-made, well-designed options.

“This is a huge, untapped market, and it’s our job to be conscious about it,” says New York interior designer Nicole Fuller, who recently designed a luxury condo for an 87-year-old client. In the interest of safety, “we looked into accessible options, but it was all so clinical. … It’s so important to be surrounded by things that make you feel good, not frightened,” she says of depressing off-the-shelf options, something she hopes to remedy with her forthcoming hardware line. “Being around beauty changes your whole attitude.”

Similarly, it was “fear of the ugly,” says Londoner Ed Warner, that brought him to this corner of the design world. “Whatever anybody’s ability or disability, they should have the option to live the way they want to,” he explains, recalling the hospital equipment that filled his friend’s home after a diving accident. “It felt like a care home.”

Disappointed by what they found on the market, he and the friend, James Taylor, launched Motionspot, a company that offers stylish products and the guidance clients need to better understand their options and how they can make their homes work.

There are clever ways to design flexible homes that you wouldn’t necessarily know were designed for a need,” Motionspot founder Ed Warner says. “Every product designer has a responsibility to design for this area.”

Motionspot founders James Taylor, left, and Ed Warner in a hotel bathroom they designed with adjustable rails, a sink with handgrips and slip-resistant flooring. (Amit Lennon)

“Five or 10 years ago, people put up with what they were given, but people are becoming much more aware now,” says Warner. “We’re constantly trying to get manufacturers to think about design that can enhance people’s lives: beautiful faucets, washrooms and kitchens, front doors and windows that are easy to open. What technology can be incorporated?”

“There’s a real movement in the market with the realization that things can be beautiful,” he adds. “There are clever ways to design flexible homes that you wouldn’t necessarily know were designed for a need. Every product designer has a responsibility to design for this area.”

To meet the growing demand for what they call “future-proofing,” later this year the company is launching Fine & Able, a kitchen and bath line that includes grab bars, faucets, sanitary ware, slip-resistant tile flooring, shower enclosures, adjustable work tops and cabinetry, and appliances. “We’ve designed out the stigma and created beautiful solutions,” says Warner.

“Products have to get better made — good design and a better price point,” Nichols says. Retailers including Walmart, Walgreens and CVS are getting into the medical space, and Lowe’s and Home Depot carry ADA-compliant options, but designers agree there’s still a huge void. Because designers can’t necessarily find universal options in their local design centers, it often comes down to doing their own research, attending niche conferences like Environments for Aging, hiring sometimes-pricey custom work or finding other accessibility hacks. (Israeli company ThisAbles creates downloadable 3-D-printer templates for items like sofa lifts and oversized light switches that convert popular Ikea furnishings into accessible designs.)

“Every kitchen and bath showroom should have at least one person on staff who understands ADA requirements,” says Los Angeles designer Christian May, who is recovering from a debilitating spinal injury he suffered several years ago. “Anyone at any time may find themselves with a permanent or temporary disability. [Maybe] you can survive without an ADA kitchen because we have Postmates and DoorDash, you can sleep on your sofa if need be, or turn your dining room into a bedroom like I had to do, but you can’t survive without an accessible bathroom.”

“We just need more accessible designs for the general public across the board — and from major brands like Pottery Barn or Crate and Barrel. But it’s not profitable yet,” adds Low.

Perhaps that will change with the so-called silver tsunami of baby boomers, and if designers have their way, the world will be all the more beautiful for it. Accessible homes have even graced the cover of national design magazines, whether readers knew it or not. “People have an emotional and physical reaction to something pleasant; beauty matters,” says Nichols, echoing Graves’s belief that “beauty can reduce stress and make us feel better,” and that “well-designed places and objects can actually improve healing.”

For Sechrist, beauty is key to spiritual wellness, especially as we age and deal with issues of marginalization and purpose. “To be in your own home and be able to just put a flower in a vase — that can feel really good.”

Maile Pingel is a design historian and writer in Los Angeles.

Design by Cece Pascual. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.

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