News

Accept the Exception

The earliest known codes that dealt with construction are found within the Code of Hammurabi, which dates back about 1700 years B.C. in Babylon.  Since building codes deal with permanent structures that are figuratively and sometimes literally concrete, some may be surprised that today’s codes are not so absolute and clear-cut as say, a rental agreement on an apartment.  In the case of old King Hammurabi, it was very definitive – should a house fall down on its owner, the builder shall be put to death!  Today (thankfully) construction law is not so strictly interpreted.  This may be because the industry is ever changing in terms of technology and building standards.  Or it may be because there are an infinite set of conditions that may be encountered within a design that has not commonly been experienced before.  Or it could be a set of existing conditions that is unique to the circumstances of a particular building project.  Likely it is some combination of issues.

Old King Hammurabi on the far left, carved atop a copy of the code; a portion of the text to the right. Image from History.org

No matter the reasons, building codes today have a little flex to them.  Actually, they have a lot of flex.  In the 2015 International Building Code (the one we use in Pennsylvania at the time of this writing), the word “exception” occurs 838 times.  The root word “except” without the -ion occurs another 227 times.  That is astounding to consider (well, to someone like me it is, anyway).

The reason: normally, the building codes read a little like the Code of Hammurabi:

“You shall do this.”

But in over one thousand instances, you do not have to do “this”, if you do “that, and maybe another thing.”  For instance, the Code says that we can only build this type of building so high…except we can go one more story if we sprinkler the building.  The Code also says all spaces must have two exits…except for when the room is this small.  It goes on and on like this.  Exceptions are pervasive in a book that is only 729 pages long, including the cover, preface and table of contents.  On average, there are about three exceptions on any two pages staring up at you.  And this is just the commercial building code.  There are additional codes for energy conservation, plumbing, mechanical, fuel gas and one for just existing buildings and one and two family homes, for which I have not done similar word counts.

But in all seriousness, it makes sense.  In my fist example, a sprinklered building is statistically much safer than one that is not.  Therefore, if provided with an automatic sprinkler system, buildings can generally be just as safe when little taller and larger than those which are not sprinklered.  And, in general, it is a good idea to have two ways out of any space, but is that really necessary in a 10′ x 10′ office?  No, of course that would be highly inefficient.

This is why I often need a lot more info when asked a “simple” question by one of my colleagues.  This isn’t because I’m nosy, but because the answer can be drastically different if I don’t know, say, the building contains a basement or it is connected to another building into which we count on exiting.  Or maybe the building contains a warehouse for fireworks and match sticks under a commercial kitchen with open flames.  That last example contains obvious hyperboles, but they illustrate the point that some circumstance are far more hazardous than others, and the Codes account for that.

I am not saying building codes are as complex as corporate tax codes… but they kind of are.  Although I am pretty sure I could not convince a building official that a new NFL stadium needs zero bathrooms; where a sly accountant can probably figure out how to pay zero taxes on that same stadium for the next thirty years…so maybe not.

Choose Your Own Code Adventure

“Nothing pleases me more than to tell you I was wrong.”

When was the last time anyone’s told you that?  That was me.  The words even surprised me as they rolled off my tongue.  As most readers may know, I coordinate many of the code compliance aspects of the firm.  I see it as my job to take the most conservative approach to any problem, unless I am told otherwise by those who have the authority to approve a more liberal approach.  For that part of the practice, this tactic makes the most sense to me.  That way, we do not make assumptions or promises that are not based in 100% reality.

This past week, I have had the opportunity to tell two different Clients that my initial interpretations were more conservative than necessary.  I know what you’re thinking.  “What’s wrong with this guy, won’t he ever learn?”  I tell you what:  I would not have changed a thing in my process.  “Gee, is this guy stubborn, or what?”  Yes, but that isn’t the reason.  Please consider the following:

  1. Building Codes leave a lot of room for interpretation of the local authorities having jurisdiction. The code book even says as much in Chapter 1.  In the first instance where I was “wrong”, we were looking to make a similar argument that has worked quite often in certain areas but did not work at all in another location fairly close to this particular project.  It would have been unwise to assume the argument would work.
  2. Codes are a lot like those Choose Your Own Adventure books I used to read when I was a kid. Do you remember those books?  At various junctures, the reader is forced to make a choice in the action.  Based on that decision, the reader is directed to a different chapter, providing multiple endings in the storyline.  In the second instance where I was “wrong” this week, based on choices made, I was able to choose a different outcome.  The choice I made required some rather significant rework to an existing building, but once completed, multiple opportunities present themselves.  The Client then gets to choose their own adventure and change the outcome of the story.  To the Client, the effort was worth it in the end.
  3. I am built this way. I would rather prepare for the worst and hope for the best any day of the week.  And if we are being honest, I would rather call you and tell you I was wrong for being too conservative than to tell you, “Hold everything, we have to undo all those decisions we made based on the loose assumptions!”  I mean, in that second call, you’re thinking I am kind of a jerk, right?  That first call is so much more pleasant for the both of us.

 

By now, you’ve probably guessed that when I read those Choose Your Own Adventure books when I was younger, I always chose the “safe” route.  You’d be right.  But just like real life, those writers always were sure to insert some twists that even the “safe” route caused turmoil and affected the outcome, and the submarine still hits the rocks and sinks to the murky depths of the sea.  Thankfully, the writers of code books aren’t so tricky – usually.

COVID-19 RESPONSE: Office Building Closed

Update to our Clients and Business Associates

In accordance with the Pennsylvania Governor’s order, RLPS Architects has temporarily closed our office building.  All RLPS employees will work remotely until state and national officials indicate it is appropriate to resume physical business operations.  In the interim, we will continue to provide services as follows:

  • Meetings will be accommodated via web conferencing technology or rescheduled as needed.
  • Email and telephone communications with project team members will continue uninterrupted.
  • Calls to our main office number, 717-560-9501, will be answered by an automated attendant with a dial-by-name directory to access individual extensions. Those calls will be forwarded to the employee’s cell phone or to voicemail which will send an alert prompt.

The RLPS team remains committed to doing everything we can to keep our clients’ projects moving forward and ultimately minimize the long-term impact of this pandemic for all of us. Please contact us with any concerns or if we can assist you further at this time.

Sincerely,

Michael J. Martin, AIA / Managing Partner

“Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs…”

Many will recognize this quote from the movie Die Hard from 20th Century Studios.  Our protagonist, John McClane visits Nakatomi Plaza to patch things up with his wife Holly at her Christmas party.  And yes, I am squarely in the camp that recognizes this movie as a Christmas movie (but that is another post, altogether).  John expects to see his wife, tolerate some small talk with her colleagues, have a few drinks and maybe reconcile with his family.  Instead, he finds himself barefoot in an air duct dodging shady bad guys of indeterminate national origin.  I sympathize with John some days.

I replay this scene in my head more days than you would think.   No; I am not an off-duty policeman.  I’m just an architect.  I am the kind of architect that gets the call when things aren’t working right.  I quite often find myself popping ceiling tiles and access panels and shoving my head into a concealed space not intended for human occupation.

Recently, I was called out to investigate an issue with an outdoor generator by one of our oldest and dearest clients.  No problem.  It was kind of cold, but that was to be expected, looking at a generator in the out of doors.  But as these things tend to go, there was something else the client wondered if I could take a look at, “while you’re here.”  I get this a lot.

The repaired sprinkler line as seen through the 5-lb hole.
“Now I know what a TV dinner feels like.” ~ John McClane

There had been a very swift cold snap recently along with some pretty high winds, and soon after, a sprinkler pipe had burst above their kitchen.  It was all fixed now, but I was asked to look and see if I could tell why it happened and how to prevent it from happening in the future.  While I’ve worked in many areas of their facility, our firm had not ever done any work in their kitchen, although there had been a recent kitchen fit-out and re-roofing of the area.  Five minutes later, I found myself in the kitchen (with a hairnet on mind you) on a ladder, trying to carefully insert my 10 pound head through a 5 pound hole.  I felt a little like John McClane…

Commercial kitchens are a funny space in so far as they have tons of heat producing appliances on one hand, and exhaust hoods that suck immense volumes of hot, moist air out of the kitchen on the other hand.  In order to prevent a vacuum, similar quantities of “make up” air must be pumped into the space.  This make up air is less humid and often cooler than you might expect, in order to keep the hard working staff comfortable with all the grills, boiling water and fryers.  This air pressure imbalance can pull air from where you don’t want it, like directly from the outside in through tiny little air gaps.  I think that is what is happening here.  The highly sensitive temperature sensor that I always carry with me (the bald spot atop my 10 pound noggin) told me so.

A few years earlier, in the same building, we cut a Jim-sized hole in the wall under a stair tower so I could crawl in and see how that space was framed in order to ascertain whether some proposed alterations would work.  That space had been enclosed for five decades unseen by any human; that is until I showed up.  We needed to see where the columns really were, and whether the walls had enough drywall on them to be rated 2 hours.  This was actually a lot easier than we thought it would be – the space was not filled with spiders, rats, alligators or shady bad guys.  Plus we found the answers to all of our questions, and fairly easily.  I didn’t have to crawl out of the air duct and jump across an elevator shaft to do it, either.  We will leave this delightful movie inaccuracy for another post – if your elevator shaft connects to all your building’s ductwork, you have more problems than just Hans Gruber stealing your bearer bonds from your vault!

We did several things under that stair: 1. Found a column. 2. Verified type and number of layers of drywall. 3. Verified properly sealed penetrations.

Architecture Professors Have No Hearts (Even on Valentine’s Day)

Life as a college student in the late twentieth century could leave you a little disconnected from society.  See, most people didn’t have cell phones, the internet was essentially in its infancy, and heck, we didn’t even have cable TV most of the time I was in college.  Maybe someone could pick up the local radio station, but mostly people’s boom boxes blasted competing musical genres from CD’s.  Life as an architecture student was even more isolated.  I would go days without seeing my roommates, as we spent most of our time in studio.  We actually drew on paper and had to do that outside of our 8 foot by 8 foot dorm rooms.

Our kind (architecture students) would miss entire world events sequestered away at our drafting tables.  I remember, or rather fail to remember, the following events:

The October 1993 deaths of 18 US soldiers in Somalia

The February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center

The November 1994 death of Tupac

The April 1995 Bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City

You’d think there was no good news in the early 90’s.  But it seems that nearly all of these times corresponded with a massive design critique in architecture school.  World events were of secondary concern.

The same was true of holidays.  In 1996, I should have had my first Valentine’s Day with the woman who is now my wife.  Nay Nay.  Turns out, our professors decided that we should spend the holiday with them working on our thesis for the last major critique prior to completion.  Lucky for me, my girlfriend was in architecture too.  Convenient, right?  So we decided to celebrate the day after Valentine’s Day.

This photo pre-dates our first Valentine’s Day together. It looks like I am taking a photo of my future wife, but I am really taking a photo of the sweet tile detail in this Italian cemetery.

In somewhat related circumstances, after 10 semesters worth of tuition, we decided to limit our gifts to each other to ten dollars.  After some well-deserved sleep, and an overdue shower and shave, I went over to my girlfriend’s apartment.  Most everyone else who celebrated the holiday had already done so by this time, but I had a small bundle of goodies to share with my honey.  When I say bundle, I mean a plastic bag from the convenience store I stopped at on the way over.  Romantic, huh?  Go ahead, you jump to your conclusion and see how you feel in the next paragraph…

When we met up, we each held our “gifts” behind our backs.  On the count of three, we exchanged them like hostages.  I reached into the bag I received and found nearly identical chocolate treats to those I had purchased.  We looked at each other, laughed, and realized that we both bought candy the day after Valentine’s Day at a heavily discounted price!  That makes the chocolate even sweeter to me, and I might add that my wife regularly looks for day-after-the-holiday goodies to this day.  Continuing on to the card, we each had added a scratch off lottery ticket to the other’s envelope.

In the end, love overcomes all, including mean old architecture professors.  Consequently, my wife and I continue to limit our Valentine’s Day spending to $20 (we adjusted for inflation).

 

Woodcrest Villa – Lancaster Architect Presentations

Woodcrest Villa residents were treated to a photo tour of local architecture featuring C. Emlen Urban a well-known figure who designed many noteworthy Lancaster buildings, along with a mystery architect with a much shorter, but still impressive stint designing buildings in and around Lancaster.  Presented by Gregg Scott, FAIA, Partner Emeritus, this three-part series sheds light on many of the back-stories behind the buildings we see today, as well as a few structures that were not able to stand the test of time for various reasons.

Parts 1 and 2: C. Emlen Urban

Part 3:  Mystery Architect

Wash Those Dirty Hands!

I was lucky enough to attend the Twenty-Third Annual Westford Symposium on Building Science – also known as Summer Camp.  It was a truly informative experience and, as the title suggests, it touched on many subjects relating to building science.  Plus there is a really great barbecue and picnic at the organizer’s home.  But is wasn’t all about R-values and air leakage, though.  While the symposium covered many topics I expected; like humidity, air-tightness and unvented roofs, it also touched on several other topics that were unexpected (to me anyway).

When building scientists need beverage coolers, they make them!  They must always have spare insulation and transition tape around.

The one session that maybe struck me with that “duh, why didn’t I think of that” moment, was called, “Architectural Compactness and Hot Water Systems: Good Design Lowers Cost”.  Now, I know what you’re thinking – with a title like this, how could you go wrong?  But here’s the thing:  I’ve thought about this session every time I touch a sink faucet since.

Whether in public buildings, apartments or houses:  the faucet is usually really far away from the hot water source.  Your second floor bathroom can be on the far side of the house and the hot water heater is located in the garage or mechanical closet, or even the basement.  Even if the hot water source happens to be on the same floor as the faucet, the pipes have to run up in to the floor or ceiling, then run horizontally to the wet wall, then up or down again, before it sees daylight.  Prior to any hot water reaching your hands, that pipe has to clear a huge volume of cold water that is already in the trunk and branches.

In the study done by the presenter, it found that 80 to 90 percent of the water draws in a typical residence were from the faucet, so let’s concentrate on that for a moment.  In the 1980’s the typical faucet in a home used 3.5 gpm (gallons per minute).  Today, the worst you can do by code is 2.2 gpm and most efficient faucets are closer to 1.2 gpm.  So even though faucet efficiency has improved drastically since the 1980’s (about 66%), we are still wasting a lot of energy down the drain.  We are just waiting for it to get hot!

Everybody washes their hands, right?  Well, they should, anyway.  The CDC (Center for Disease Control) says you have to wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.  For the record, the CDC recommends singing the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.  I wish I had known that earlier, because anyone with kids has probably heard their kids turn on the water long enough to only get through “Happy Birthday to y….” & done.  But I digress…

Faucet in the aesthetically pleasing position.  Energy down the drain!

While much of the session was focused on how to keep the “wet” rooms closer to the source. Clearly, we designers can and should learn to do better.  But the clearest takeaway for me was this: we wash our hands a lot.  Our faucets are usually a single lever, as they are accessible, convenient and easier to change the temperature.  If our levers are positions in the “neutral” position (half hot, half cold), and we turn it on 60-100 times a day and run it to wash our hands, we are wasting a lot of hot water!

If we run our faucet for the recommended 20 seconds (minimum, I hope), there is almost no way in most houses (or offices or public restrooms for that matter) that the water will be hot by the time we are done washing our hands.  The water already in the pipe is unheated.  I know in my house it can take a minute or more for hot water to reach my second story bathroom faucet.  An eternity.

But if my faucet is drawing hot water as well as cold when washing my hands, I’ve wasted a lot of energy to heat water that will never touch my hands.  By the time the next person touches that faucet, the water I heated in the pipe line will have cooled off because the copper in most houses is not insulated.  By simply turning the faucet lever all the way to the right, I use only cold water to wash my hands.  No energy wasted.

I came home from Summer Camp all excited about this revelation.  There is an obstacle.  People (the people I know, anyway) don’t like it when the faucet lever isn’t lined up and nice and straight.  My wife, for one, was not impressed.  There is a compromise now!  In addition to the water efficient faucet, I am told that faucets that will only draw cold water when the lever is straight up and down unless you push it to the left while the water is on are on their way to the market.  That way you can leave the lever nice and straight, and not waste that energy.

By the way, the CDC doesn’t care if the water is hot or cold, so unless you have a medical condition, why not use cold?

Faucet in the energy saving position.  Is the hot water even going to reach your hands by the time you’re done anyway?

 

Fall Conferences 2019

Fall is a busy time for conferences at RLPS. It’s a great opportunity to share ideas, learn new things and connect with our clients and business associates. We’re looking forward to seeing you at one of the following events this fall.

We Hope to See You 

ERAPPA Annual Meeting – September 29-October 2, 2019 in Erie, PA Summer Breeze: Successful Campus Housing Updates presented by Jonathan Enos, Franklin & Marshall College; Brett Calabretta, Warfel Construction Company; and Carson Parr, RLPS Architects

PASA-PSBA School Leadership Conference – October 16-18, 2019 in Hershey, PA Booth #424

Mid-Atlantic Association of College and University Housing Officers (MACUHO) – October 23-25, 2019 in Atlantic City, NJ

LeadingAge National October 27-30, 2019 in San Diego, CA Booth #2219

  • Experience of a Lifetime: The Art of Creating Memorable Hospitality Settings presented by Thomas Garvin, Waverly Heights; Paul Nordeman, Meadowood; Vassar Byrd, Rose Villa; and Eric McRoberts, RLPS Architects
  • Let’s Meet in the Middle! Not Too Big – Not Too Small presented by Ric Myers, Willow Valley; and Gregg Scott, RLPS Architects
  • 2020 Housing: Innovative Design and Financial Models for Independent Living presented by Paul Vanderveen, Sun Health; Brian Schiff, Brian Schiff & Associates; and Chris Linkey, RLPS Architects

J.P. McCaskey High School Design Invokes Art Deco Style of the 1930s

This is the sixth article in a series focusing on Henry Y. Shaub, an architect who had a lasting impact on Lancaster County.

J.P. McCaskey High School is a product of the 1935 Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiative, designed to put Americans back to work following the Great Depression. The building stands tall as a timeless testimony to the creativity and great work by the Lancaster community during difficult times in our country’s history.   By 1936, 49-year-old architect Henry Y. Shaub had earned a statewide reputation as a leader in progressive public school design for children of all ages.   When retained by the Lancaster City School District to author the city’s first gender integrated school, he took that opportunity to elevate educational design innovation to the next level.

The building, designed in the popular Art Deco style, presents a red brick and limestone façade along Franklin Street. The 540-foot long façade is pierced by a tower that is 97 feet high.  The grand lobby is behind the three masonry portals that stand two stories tall. This memorable lobby space features in-laid terrazzo flooring, gilded ceilings, red marble walls and walnut paneling.  The auditorium was the largest of its kind in the city with a seating capacity of 1,900.  The stage, measuring 83 feet wide and 18 feet high, was also the biggest school stage in the state with the largest “trip curtain” in the country.  The stage featured a regulation sized basketball court offering every seat in the auditorium optimal views of the event!

Shaub was most proud of the unique programming elements that he was able to incorporate into the design. This included fully staged home economic apartment, a full sized “teaching” retail display window, a 200-seat library, a 1,000-seat cafeteria, a 200-seat concert hall, art gallery, museum, complete medical unit and a 12,700 square foot multi-functional gymnasium. In his own description of the design, Shaub speaks to the abundant natural light that permeates each classroom and the use of “light green paint for eye conservation.”  The exterior materials and details reflect the Art Deco movement of the 1930s including glass block, stylized pressed metal panels, cast stone medallions and cast iron newel posts and railings.

On February 6, 1938, the Lancaster Sunday News reported that more than 8,680 Lancastrians had inspected the city’s “newest palace of education” and offered rave reviews including reactions like “marvelous,” “amazing” and “the most complete school they had ever seen.”  John Piersol McCaskey was Lancaster’s beloved educator, mayor and politician. He passed away at the age of 97, just three years before his name was carved in stone over the main entrance to the new school—a palace of education.

Design Intervention is written by Gregory J. Scott, FAIA, Partner Emeritus

For LNP subscribers, here is the link to the original News Article, Architect’s Design for McCaskey High School Invokes Art Deco Style

Accessible Doesn’t Mean Institutional

Many designers and consumers alike have an aversion to anything labeled: accessible.  That particular label on an apartment can have a connotation of “institutional” or just plain not looking like all the other residential units.  Even in retirement living, the Type A apartments (or so-called “ADA” units), which are required by most building codes to comprise of at least 2% of the total apartment units in a development, are often the hardest to sell.  Why?  Because they (can) look different.  However, with a little creativity and just a couple extra design features, these adaptable units can be almost indistinguishable from the other 98% of the apartments.

Ever see this symbol on a rental agreement or mortgage? This is the Fair Housing Act symbol.

To back up a little (warning:  building code lesson), all apartments in multi-family living have to meet certain usability requirements.  This is a result of the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, which augmented the original Act of 1968 to extend housing opportunities to those with disabilities.  It’s worth noting that this amendment to the Act preceded the Americans with Disabilities Act by two years.  The 1988 Fair Housing Act covered all new construction housing after 1991 that connects more than three dwelling units together to meet minimum accessibility requirements.  That means that single family homes are exempt, but townhomes, apartments or any other dwellings of four or more connected by any means are regulated, whether rental, simple ownership or condominium.  Developers and owners are sometimes unaware of these minimum standards despite the three decades since the law’s implementation.

This means that even the “standard” units in a typical apartment building, typically called Type B, have to meet some minimum standards.  These standards include reasonable accommodations to residents even if that may require the resident to modify the unit (at their own cost, mind you, not the landlord’s).  The Type A adaptable units, the 2% mentioned above, are scoped out by most building codes.  These standards exceed those required even by the Fair Housing Act above, but not to fully accessible criteria as required in, say, a public bathroom.

The main differences between the two types of units lay in the bathrooms and the kitchen.  There are other differences, but they probably will not be recognized by the average consumer.  Doorways have to be a quarter inch wider, doors need to have certain clearances in front of them and some receptacles and electrical outlets may need to be lower or higher, but only slightly so.

The area dedicated to the bathrooms of the Type A adaptable unit may be larger than the other units, to allow for the five foot turning radius that a wheel chair requires and some of the clear space requirements on the individual fixtures is larger than those required at Type B units.  Other than these differences, however, the actual appearance of the adaptable bathroom can be identical to the standard Type B units.  The regulations require that in-wall blocking be installed in the bathrooms at the showers and the toilets for the future installation of grab bars and a shower seat.  These items do not have to be installed, however, and the blocking is invisible in the finished product.  The sink does need to allow a wheel chair to clear the underside, which in many cases eliminates a base cabinet at this location.  Even here, the code allows for a removable cabinet, provided it may be removed easily and the flooring and wall finishes continue behind it.  A conscientious designer can incorporate a removable sink cabinet that appears to be built in, matching the appearance of any other bathroom in the building.  Shower control locations in adaptable units are also required to be on the long wall of the 3’ x 5’ showers typically provided in senior housing.  This can place the shower wand in a location that would spray water out of the shower, as opposed to if it were located on one of the short walls.  But the code does not prohibit a diverter and a second, fixed head on the short wall, nor does it prohibit a slightly longer hose on the wand and a second holder on the short wall.  Either of these solutions, paired with a wand that has an “off” switch on the dial, can overcome this obstacle.

The “invisible” clearances in bathrooms and kitchens define the rooms.
I see clearance boxes like Keanu Reeves sees the Matrix.

The clear areas dedicated to the kitchen probably is exactly the same between the two types of units, so the Type A kitchen will not necessarily larger than its Type B counterpart.  There are, however, two main differences to overcome.  First is the provision for a wheel-under sink and a wheel-under work area in the cabinetry.  These open cabinets can be filled in exactly as described in the bathroom above.  These removable bases can be indistinguishable from those on either side, and removed with just a couple of ordinary screws.  The second issue is a little harder to hide.  The sink and the work surface have to be a 34” above the floor, which is 2 inches lower than a standard kitchen counter.  Typically, the entire kitchen counter is lowered to maintain a consistent countertop height, and while this isn’t required, it does eliminate two low spots on an otherwise regular surface.  This is one concession to accessibility that may be difficult to circumnavigate, though in our work in senior living with reputable providers, we have procured variances from the agencies administering the codes to allow traditional 36” countertops provided the building owner promises to replace the entire kitchen counter and necessary cabinets upon the request of a resident.  If a variance can be obtained, this essentially eliminates any difference between a Type A and a Type B kitchen.

Designing for accessibility is nothing new, however.  Nor should it negatively impact the design.  Inform the design – yes: ruin – NO!  A real groundswell in advocacy began, with good reason, after World War II.  Many thousands of service personnel returned to the US dealing with the physical and mental consequences of modernized warfare.  The housing and public facilities to which they returned were not accommodating, and in 1946 a group of paralyzed veterans founded The United Spinal Association in New York; the Paralyzed Veterans of America was founded in 1947; the National Paraplegia Foundation in 1948.  Just a few years earlier, accessibility issues were never talked about, not even by our wartime president FDR, who himself used a wheelchair for much of his adult life as a result of contracting polio.  But thanks to these service men and women, accessibility advocacy was about to shift to the forefront of public conversation.

Mr. Laurent in his FLW designed accessible home in 2009.         Photo Credit: RRSTAR.com

Even many architects don’t know that Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s preeminent designer of the first half of the Twentieth Century, designed a house specifically for a client with a physical disability in Rockford, Illinois.  In 1949, Wright designed a home for Kenneth Laurent, a disabled veteran, and his wife.  The Laurents obtained a $10,000 (that’s about $140,000 today) federal grant for disabled veterans, and Mrs. Laurent wrote to Wright after seeing the Pope-Leighey House in the magazine House Beautiful.  She asked Wright if a house could be designed for a wheelchair user on a $20,000 budget.  Most of Wright’s Usonian homes are single story and open floor plan affairs.  Both of these attributes compliment universal design well.

The Laurent House is consistent with the Wright look and feel, and the incorporated accessible details do not call themselves out.  The custom desks, which cantilever from the walls and are completely open below, are as at home here as they would be at Fallingwater, Wright’s famous Pennsylvania home cantilevered off the side of a hill over a waterfall.  Even the various storage cabinets fronts were designed to hinge on the bottom instead of the side, making it easier for the client to open them from his wheelchair.  The living areas do not express any hint of institutional design.  The only perceivable trace at the time may have been wider doors, which to today’s eyes, look completely normal, but in the 40’s it was customary to have 30” bedroom doors rather than a much more wheelchair friendly 36”.  Obviously, there are no steps to create barriers into the house from any of the exterior patios, terraces or the carport.  Wright’s typical wide overhangs would protect those thresholds from water as well as snow accumulation.

Wide passageways with accessible cabinets. Photo credit: Brent Stebbins
Photo credit: @dchi85

The bathrooms and kitchen were probably the biggest challenge to Wright, as they are to designers today.  But it is remarkable that his solutions 70 years ago are strikingly similar to solutions still used today.  Let’s be honest.  Men of the 1950’s did not likely spend a lot of time in the kitchen.  But Wright lowered the countertop to a height similar to the standard required today.  To do so, he used a drop in style range so it could be flush with a lower countertop and the controls are all on the front, so that one does not need to reach across the burners and hot pots and pans to adjust the heat.  That is an explicit requirement of Type A kitchens today.  The kitchen is an open floor plan and allows generous maneuverability within the space.  While the kitchen sink is not open below, it is positioned to allow side approach to it.  All in all, even with the lower counters, the kitchen looks very much like many other FLW kitchens, and I have visited several.

Cantilevered Desk – Photo credit: Brent Stebbins
Photo credit: americanroads.net

Wright would have struggled a little with contemporary codes in the bathroom, but nonetheless he came up with a few innovations here worth mentioning.  In addition to the traditional bathing tub, Wright added a shower next to it.  While it is not a true roll-in shower used today, it has a much shallower curb and would allow for easier transfer to a shower chair than anything readily available in the 1940’s.  And while there is not as much clearance at the toilet as you would see today, the lavatory cantilevers from the wall and allows full wheelchair clearance below, which was rather innovative for its time.

The fact that the Laurnets lived in this house for 60 years is a testament to Wright’s foresight into what would one day be called universal design and allowing the family to age in place in their home.  They even added on to the house when they adopted a child years later.  Perhaps Wright’s age when he first conceived of the home aided his design.  He was 82 years old and probably less mobile than he was in his youth.

Accessibility features in living units do not have to constrain design or stand out like billboards.  Done sensitively, these features can work seamlessly with the overall design of the space, making it usable to the widest range of potential users possible.  It will not just eliminate barriers for those with disabilities, but it should benefit as many users as possible, from those in wheelchairs to those on skateboards.