Accidental Design

This morning I unexpectedly ended up in the Emergency Room of the local hospital waiting to hear the diagnosis for a friend that had fallen while coming out of the shower.  She had a severely dislocated and broken ankle and will be undergoing surgery soon.  Sitting, waiting, thinking – how suddenly our lives can become more difficult – how instantly our home becomes full of barriers. We rarely give a thought to those three stairs leading to our front door.  Then one quick accident and those lovely, stone steps become an obstacle to our daily living.

This landscaping layout shows how the Miró wall takes shape outside of the home---note the area between the main home and the accessory dwelling unit. The wall will wrap around the memorial tree. April 1, 2012.

The landscaping plan shows the two dwellings and areas that will be accessible to wheelchair and pedestrian traffic.

If someone in your home was suddenly injured, would they be able to enter your home and live comfortably?  For most of us the answer is, no.  Accessibility to our homes and within our homes can become a challenge for the injured, elderly or disabled.  Very few homes are ‘barrier free’ to wheelchairs and often have obstacles for people using walkers, or even crutches.


Geoff Babb, friend of Barb and Tom, tries out a temporary ramp in the early stages of construction.

When the design process of Desert Rain began, Tom and Barb wanted accessibility to be a consideration.  They recognized that the aging process or possibilities of injuries could create the need for their home to be wheelchair accessible. They also have friends that use wheelchairs and they wanted their home to have visitibility.  This concept focuses on making equal social relations possible for all by designing homes that are useable and welcoming to all visitors. The term developed around the idea that even if people with disabilities live in dwellings accessible to themselves, their social and family life may be limited if they cannot visit other people’s homes.  Visitibility is a narrower vision of universal design since the requirements for visiting would be less than the requirements to live full time in a home.

Universal design is a term coined by architect Ronald L. Mace. He used the term to describe ‘the concept of designing all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life.’  Read more about Ronald Mace and the concept of Universal Design – click here

A universally designed home is built to support an independent lifestyle for all and include features such as:

    • Minimum door widths of 32”
    • Hallway widths of 48”
    • Roll in/roll out thresholds
    • Outdoor ramps or landscaping with gradual slopes
    • removable fronts on sinks
    • Roll in showers
    • Wheelchair accessible kitchen counters/eating area

The house and accessory dwelling unit will be accessible to all.

While Tom and Barb have a personal interest in making Desert Rain accessible, designing and building for accessibility is also contributing to the Equity Petal of the Living Building Challenge.  The Living Building Challenge website states: The intent of the Equity Petal is to correlate the impacts of design and development to its ability to foster a true sense of community. A society that embraces all sectors of humanity and allows the dignity of equal access is a civilization in the best position to make decisions that protect and restore the natural environment.’

The Equity Petal has three Imperatives:  Human Scale + Humane Places; Democracy + Social Justice; Rights to Nature

Most of the areas on the site will be accessible to wheelchair or pedestrian traffic so all may enjoy the natural areas. The apple tree is a favored meeting spot.

An element of equity in the built environment requires the creation of spaces and structures that provide universal access to people with disabilities. Desert Rain has many design attributes of accessible structures and accessible landscaping.  Inside, the dimensions and spaces are useable by all visitors. The kitchen island and seating area includes accommodation for a wheelchair. The floor plan is open. The hallways and doorways are wide.  An entrance to each dwelling is accessible.  The accessory dwelling unit could serve the purpose of a caregiver’s living space or provide an independent living environment for a friend or family member that needs accessible housing.  Outside, the design includes gradual pathways flowing from structures, to courtyards, to areas of nature on the site.

Inspirational ideas for accessible living spaces –    Dwell magazine accessible home tour


None of us can anticipate the accident that suddenly would make our homes unlivable. We can contemplate the possibility of the need to modify our homes for accessibility should we have that accident. There is bountiful information available on the internet for ideas, designs, and requirements for accessible dwellings.  My friend’s accident is a good reminder – now, is the time to think about creating a home that is useable and welcoming to all.






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