In planning for their retirement on the coast of Maine, Sue and Mac (last names omitted at their request) envisioned large gatherings of extended family, long summertime visits from their children and grandchildren, and frequent drop-ins by friends and associates. To manage all that, their house would need to accommodate people with a wide range of physical abilities, including Sue’s sister Alice, who uses a wheelchair.
Portland, Maine-based architect Rob Whitten and remodeler Larry Wagner took that brief—plus a great 19th-century post-and-beam barn—and delivered a fully “visitable” remodel. The final product is a house that welcomes people of every age and ability with equal graciousness, and also will support its owners’ independence and comfort for many years to come.
Down to Earth
The couple’s property consisted of a 2.5-acre lot at the wooded margin of open field a stone’s throw from the shore. “It was the undeveloped edge of what had been a coastal farm for 300 years,” says Whitten, who at first considered salvaging material from one of the farm’s old barns to use in a new house. “Then we realized that we could use the whole barn,” he says. With that as a starting point, determining the character of the rest of the building was a no-brainer, he says. “We thought, ‘We have a barn; let’s design a farmhouse to go with it.’” Drawing on his decades of experience with 19th-century rural buildings, Whitten penned a contemporary interpretation of the archetypal Maine farm compound.
Given the clients’ inclusive program, though, accessibility would be as important as style. Whitten devoted special attention to siting, even sacrificing some of the ocean view to keep the ground-floor spaces no more than a single step above grade. Alice, who had polio as a child, served as Whitten’s tutor in matters of wheelchair navigation.
“She just kind of educated me from her perspective,” the architect says. “She said, ‘I want a protected entry door at grade, a place to park my car, and space around the car to get in and out.’”
The barn’s 40 foot-by-60 foot dimensions allowed for a roomy garage with an indoor ramp to the house’s main living areas, as well as Mac’s woodworking shop and sundry utility spaces, all on the first floor. (Wagner developed the barn’s second floor as a bunkroom for the grandchildren and roughed-in an apartment for a live-in attendant, should one ever be needed.)
“Alice said, ‘[as a wheelchair user] you plan every move in advance,’” Whitten says. “‘Where do I take off my coat? How easy is it to do that?’ She likes to enter without a big fuss and get herself presentable [before joining the group], and all of that happens in the barn.” On the circulation path from the garage into the house, Whitten located a half bath that includes supportive surfaces flanking the toilet (in place of grab bars), a shallow counter, and an easy-to-reach lever faucet—discreet, non-institutional features that make the room easier to use for people who use wheelchairs, as well as for those who don’t.
Range of Motion
Mac and Sue contributed their own insights to the project. “I’m a physician,” Mac says, “so I’m familiar with people aging and their capabilities diminishing. It’s usually a fall that changes the level at which a person can function,” he says, “so we were conscious of designing the house for a person who has difficulty walking—and difficulties with vision too.” He and his wife, who worked for years in construction management, requested a first-floor master suite and no thresholds or elevation changes at the first floor.
Further easing circulation, the house’s public spaces are either open to each other or joined by doorways wide enough for two people to pass through simultaneously. Light switches are low enough for a child or a person using a wheelchair; door hardware consists of levers or egg-shaped knobs that are easy to operate. Furniture arrangements include space for a wheelchair to roll by or to join the grouping.
Whitten carefully planned dedicated storage for each activity area, preventing clutter and tripping hazards. “In our bathroom, we have a walk-in shower,” Mac adds. “There’s enough room that you could put a chair in the shower, and we’ve had to use one, because my wife had both of her knees replaced.”
Age brings changes in vision and hearing too, Mac notes, “so there are enough lights in the ceiling—on dimmers—so that we can see.” Natural lighting is also abundant, with windows on two or three walls of most rooms. A large skylight tops the kitchen’s central work area, where clear vision is especially important. “There’s also a [centralized] sound system,” Mac says. “I’ve had a little hearing loss, and I can direct the sound of the TV through the speakers.” A home security system offers peace of mind on a site that can feel somewhat isolated on a winter night. “That’s something you think about as you get older,” Mac says.
Nine years after the move-in, Sue says that she and Mac don’t give a lot of thought to the accessibility aspect of their project. “It’s just great living in this house,” she says. “It doesn’t feel cavernous when we’re here alone, but we have room for 12 people to stay overnight. And when the house is full it’s really nice, especially when the weather is good and we can use the outdoor spaces.” Sue also has noticed how easily activity flows between indoors and outdoors, and she credits Whitten for siting the building close to the ground. “We have four outdoor areas that are used really heavily,” she says. “Our front yard, in particular, is really like a huge room. It’s only one step down from the front porch, and it’s used really intensely. We notice that’s not the case with the other houses in the neighborhood.”
Here, accessibility is a matter of function rather than just features, Sue says. “It’s almost invisible. A lot of it just has to do with dimensions and lack of thresholds. And in a lot of places we don’t have a door, so there’s no door to open.” The cumulative result is a house that makes life easier for its owners and their visitors, simply by getting out of the way and letting everyone enjoy themselves. “That means a lot to my sister,” Sue says, “but it’s also true for a lot of people my age. The ramp in our garage has a very gradual incline, and many people visiting us have used it. And if it gets harder for us to do things like carrying groceries, we can use it too.”
Sue says that thought occurs to her and her husband now and then as they drive past the retirement community near their house, a place they have no expectation of ever moving to.
“We would just have no reason to do that,” she says, “to leave this house in order to make it easier for us to manage. We intended from the beginning that this would be a place where we could grow old, and where we would live for as long as we could. We don’t anticipate having to move out.”