Monday, April 27, 2009

Pennsylvania remodeler embraces universal design

From the Tribune-Review in Pittsburgh:

In early 2007, Jen and Bob Mankowski (pictured) were shopping around for a home of their own, with little success.

Both were software engineers who had returned to graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh. They wanted a reasonable commute to Oakland. Because Bob uses a wheelchair, the house had to have living quarters and a garage on one level — and a level lot.

After finding a ranch-style home on a hilltop in Kilbuck, they interviewed several contractors about widening the doorways and making other modifications. They found Harry Burns, president of Bellevue-based Home Evolutions.

"When we saw this house, we brought Harry in to see what we could do," recalled Bob Mankowski, 44. "He had all the right ideas and was very passionate about this stuff. We decided he was the guy to help us."

Burns' business specializes in certified "Aging-In-Place" design principles, a program developed by the National Association of Home Builders and the AARP. But modifications such as zero-threshold doorways and wall-hanging sinks and stovetops are not just for people with disabilities: They can help Baby Boomers stay in their homes despite encroaching mobility or vision difficulties.

"Most homes are not built with the changing needs of our population in mind," said Burns, 42. "They are built for a 5'10" man in good health."

That's a problem not just for the individual but for that person's community, said Roxanne Huss, director of home and community services at Three Rivers Center for Independent Living.

"It provides a better quality of life if a person can stay involved with their church, their social activities, their family and friends," Huss said. "It's also good for family members to be able to visit in a home setting. No one wants to go to a nursing home unless there's absolutely no other alternative."

Burns' passion for such renovations started close to home. His mother, Carolyn Vidt, lived for 26 years with a neurological ailment that impaired her vision and made it difficult for her to walk or stand for long periods of time. A chair of the Pennsylvania Rehabilitation Council and governor-appointed member of the State Rehabilitation Advisory Council, Vidt died in January of ovarian cancer at age 64.

Allegheny County last year introduced a $2,500 tax credit for new housing or renovations that incorporate accessibility into their construction, with city residents eligible for an additional $2,500 credit. But so far, a county spokesman said, only three people have applied for the "Act 132" credit.

Incorporating accessibility into new construction can add about 4 percent to the construction cost, Burns said. Renovating an existing home runs closer to 30 percent of the home's value. Avoiding an institutional feel is important, he said. For the Mankowskis, that meant — rather than building ramps — he eliminated a front stoop and built a curved concrete pathway. A sunken living room was elevated, with a hardwood radius around a fireplace.

An additional bedroom was built with heating piped under the floor — important for people such as Bob with spinal cord injuries, who find it difficult to maintain healthy body temperatures. The bathroom, tiled in amber-colored stone, features a European-style curbless shower with brushed metal grab-bars that match the showerhead and faucet.

"A lot of the 'universal design' concepts that make a home more accessible are hidden in plain sight," Burns said. "Why not install a barrier-free sink? Why not put nice tile lines on the front of a counter, so that as your vision degrades, you can easily identify the edges of the sink? To a layman, it just looks like a nice detail. If I didn't tell you why I put it there, you wouldn't have any idea."