Homeowner John Carmean and his wife, Chris, are no newcomers to tragedy. Their daughter, Kerry, was just over a year old when a car accident in 1974 broke John's back, paralyzing him from the chest down, putting him in a wheelchair for life.

Twenty-seven years later, when a natural gas leak at the meter fueled a fire that severely damaged the couple's central California ranch house, they did their best to rebound from their newest tragedy. After all, they'd gotten out safely, alerted by neighbors' insistent rapping at the door.

Chris Carmean's first call was to Lori Bentley, who with her husband, Bruce, runs Bentley Design & Remodeling in Hanford, Calif., midway between Sacramento and Los Angeles. The Bentleys had built a 352-square-foot, $50,000 accessible master bath addition for the couple three years earlier.

William Helsel Architectural Photography
Photo: William Helsel Architectural Photography “When the fire department was mopping up, Lori was right there,” says John Carmean.

Acting quickly and working with adjusters, the Bentleys discovered that clay roof tiles were weakened and falling in and that 60% of the attic trusses were charred, making them unsafe by building code standards. Before the Carmeans' belongings were removed, Bruce and lead carpenter Randy Shaw obtained a permit for temporary power and built roof support systems, pulling tarps over the roof to prevent damage from rain. After the home's belongings were taken out, Bruce and Randy used dehumidifiers, driers, and fans to remove water used to extinguish the fire.

BEFORE It would be seven months until the insurance claim was settled and another five months before the Carmeans, both of them teachers at area schools, resettled. But when they did move in, it would be the first time in 27 years that John could really use the kitchen and move about with comfort and ease. Odd as it sounds, the couple had the fire to thank — not to mention the Bentleys' unique perspective.

When the project wrapped, Lori Bentley, who has multiple sclerosis and occasionally uses a wheelchair, rolled through the finished job. “I wanted to test drive what I designed,” she says. She and the Carmeans were delighted with the results.

Periscope Up When the Carmeans had their house built in 1976, the determined “handi-capable” John had been burning tracks in his wheelchair just a few years (he used to wheel a mile to school each day). Not knowing what they needed in the way of accommodations, the couple worked in basic universal or accessible elements: a design as open as the 1,808-square-foot house allowed, a flat floor plan with no stairs, and wide halls and doorways. But neither they nor their builder thought of the little things.

AFTER John, a high school science teacher, for years used a homemade periscope to check his thermostat. And before the bathroom remodel, he dropped from his wheelchair to drag himself over the shower door track to shower. He fell out of his chair doing simple tasks, like putting a plug into a socket. So while the fire presented a second chance, it put gentle pressure on the Bentleys to use their 17 years of client attentiveness to reconstruct the house in a way that completely understood its homeowners' requirements — and to do so in a way that took into consideration John's complete distaste for anything looking institutional.

The Bentleys worked with insurance adjusters, explaining the severity of the damage and helping to push the payout up from $119,000 to $165,000. Bruce Bentley says the insurance company ridiculously underestimated the charring of the trusses, which made it more cost effective to replace the entire roof. Smoke damage required removal of all drywall. The remodelers had to rewire and re-duct a good part of the house, too, because when the trusses came out, the wiring and smoke-damaged duct work came, too. The fire had gotten so hot that the solder in the joints of the copper plumbing was melted, so the house had to be re-plumbed.

Amazingly, only the master bath didn't suffer severe smoke or fire damage.

Lowered countertop heights and open areas under the counters mean that John Carmean can actually use his kitchen. All the modifications were made with an eye toward aesthetics: The kitchen doesn't look institutional at all — one of the Carmeans' wishes. Photo: William Helsel Architectural Photography The Carmeans matched the $165,000 insurance payout in order to make their house more comfortable and accessible and to make aesthetic changes — adding cathedral ceilings, bumping up the entryway's headroom from a brow-busting 81 inches, and shedding the home's Mediterranean look for a Craftsman-style portico.

The parties decided on a cost-plus contract, because of unknowns caused by fire, smoke, and water.