By Nina Patel. When Stowe, Vt., architect Milford Cushman was asked to design a custom home for a couple, the fact that the wife is in a wheelchair was just another design issue. "The parameters were created around her physical needs and the emotional and aesthetic side," he says.

She wanted the house to be light, open, and have a connection to the outdoors. The house has three levels and is located on an open property with rolling hills. Her bedroom and bathroom are on the main level, and she wanted access to the outdoors with a screened porch and a deck that overlooks the property.

Though Cushman chose universal design elements for the kitchen and bath that work specifically for these clients, he says much of the design translates to any remodeling project. Cushman had never designed a project for a client in a wheelchair, but he had worked with ADA guidelines for public buildings. "ADA guidelines are important for awareness in designing to minimum standards -- not aesthetics, just functionality," Cushman says. "Our job was to connect those things." Open to All

Cushman started out by making the kitchen visually and physically accessible. He asked cabinetmaker Don McCormick of Woven Wood in nearby Elmore to bring his designs to life. He decided not to use cabinet doors on the base cabinets. "If we had, it would have made the contents of the cabinets inaccessible to her," Cushman says. He used slide-out shelves in the openings. "This is natural for her and makes sense for everyone," he says.

Photo: Carolyn Bates Photography

Open, pull-out shelves on both sides of the stove (top) give the owner easy access to kitchen items. The wheelchair-height countertop under the window provides a place for breakfast, work, or reading recipes. A nearby pantry (left) has shelves to keep items within reach. Shallow bookshelves on one side of the island (right) provide a visual transition from the kitchen to the living room.

The cabinets that flank the range have a top drawer that is closed because it contains knives, but the open bottom shelves pull out. The hutch on the side is the only part of the kitchen that has cabinet doors. Cushman used glass in those doors to provide visual access.

Cushman spent a lot of time interviewing the homeowner. He also measured the turn radius and other details of her wheelchair. Based on those measurements, he included a 54-inch-wide aisle between the island and the wall cabinets. For additional comfort, he lowered the counter on one side of the kitchen so the wheelchair can slide under it comfortably. At 31 inches, it is 5 inches lower than the rest of the kitchen's 36-inch-high counters. Lower counters also provide a place for cooks to sit and work and are comfortable for children. But Cushman prefers 36-inch-high counters for most of his kitchen designs because they are more comfortable for most users.

The island provides a barrier between the kitchen and adjacent living room. On the living room side, Cushman lined the island with 12-inch-deep bookshelves. This allowed him to include 38-inch-deep cabinets on the kitchen side of the island.

In the island, he installed an undermount sink set in a base cabinet, because the homeowner doesn't often use the sink. "If someone did need [wheelchair] access, we would leave that space open and wrap the pipes," Cushman says. Good for Everyone

The design elements Cushman used for this client are applicable to many of his other customers. Right now, they range in age from 42 to 60. Some have young children or grandchildren, and some want to make accommodations for their aging parents. They are concerned about making adjustments that do not appear institutional.

One thought-provoking question that helps Cushman determine his clients' accessibility needs asks them where they want to be in five or 10 years. "We help them address their immediate needs and project their midrange and long-range goals," Cushman says.

Photos: Carolyn Bates Photography

Masterful Bath

In the master bedroom, architect Milford Cushman included easy-to-operate pocket doors for the entry-way to the bathroom and the closet. "There is no doorway between her closet and the bathroom so she can get access to the bathroom and closet all the way around," Cushman says.

He repeated the wood and slate design theme from the kitchen by using the same materials in the bathroom. The bathroom is lined with 12-by-12-inch Vermont slate tiles and the vanity is crafted by the same cabinetmaker who made the kitchen cabinets.

The whole bathroom complies with ADA standards. The vanity is 32 inches high and has a cantilevered sink to provide room for a wheelchair. The floor in the roll-in shower is pitched forward to prevent water from collecting. The sliding shower bar provides bathing convenience.