When this family started the process of building their dream home, they set out to marry accessibility and beauty in unique and subtle ways. The couple’s child was born with a rare genetic disorder and relies on a wheelchair. Knowing that he will always require a caregiver, his parents started planning for the house they needed. They knew that their stacked townhouse would not do; the child’s mother, who is the primary caregiver, was carrying her son up and down multiple flights of stairs. As he grew, it was clear they were going to need to move.
“Knowing what we were facing going into the future was discouraging,” Jennifer* says.
(*names changed at homeowners’ request)
At the same time, her elderly parents were finding their four-bedroom house more than they could manage. And so both families sold their homes, bought a neglected bungalow west of downtown, and promptly tore it down to build fresh. Working with Amsted Design and Build, the family designed a Craftsman-style house that backs onto National Capital Commission parkland and blends in nicely with its neighbours. Working with the existing foundation, two separate units were erected — one for the young family of three, the other as an in-law suite.
“It has allowed us to have a safe, stable, bright, calm place — all those things that are not always in our life,” she says. “The house is more than just a home because it brings you all of that.”
The main floor in-law suite occupies the entire first floor and can be accessed from the front of the house, where a ramp assures easy of entry. The grandparents’ suite is the size of a large condo with a three-season room at the back. Both families gather often for dinners in the main house.
Having the grandparents over for dinner wasn’t the only advantage of the new setup. A single grocery run for the two households is a big time-saver, especially during the early part of the pandemic, when hour-long lineups were the norm. Plus, if their son is having a hard day, he can sit with his grandparents. Care for a special-needs child is constant, and those interactions provide rare pause and quality time for the families.
A tour of the house provides signs that a mobility-challenged person lives there: the wide hallways, the dual-sided elevator that offers movement between the three bedrooms upstairs and the basement. With the elevator door closed, you might mistake it for the powder room. The kitchen opens to a playroom and living area where their son can also have physio time. Huge picture windows are low enough that someone in a seated position can get a full view of the foliage.
Through the mudroom, you’ll find the garage, which was extended to accommodate a lift and two large vehicles that can fit wheelchairs. In the basement, the families can gather to watch TV or to hear the father play classical music on the organ.
The son’s bedroom has space for a ceiling track in the event he needs a lifting device in the future. All towel racks and toilet paper holders double as grab bars in bathrooms. Solid plywood reinforcing behind bathroom walls means grab bars can be anchored anywhere along the wall, as needs change over time.
“We had to build for that flexibility and long-term thinking,” says Steve Barkhouse, president of Amsted Design-Build. He encourages all of his clients to build in these features; it doesn’t cost more to build a wider door, or to have zero-clearance thresholds for a smoother, safer wheeling surface. Roll-in showers, raised toilets, and universal-height light switches and plugs are all helpful additions that help people to live in their homes for longer — and they don’t have a clinical feel, something these homeowners wanted to avoid.
“What we wanted was to build a home that happened to be accessible as opposed to building an accessible home,” the father says. “One can have a more institutional feeling, but we wanted this to be a home.”
“It’s not easy for us to pick up and run out the door — or to get into other people’s homes, so we do a lot of entertaining here,” he says. “We are in our house a lot of the time. Everything that we have done here is done with that thought.”