Offering Access to All

By Barbara Ruben
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 14, 2008

"Cooking completed," intones a microwave oven from knee height, while in the bathroom a scale blurts out someone's weight. Through a wide doorway, the front-loading washer and dryer are elevated to eliminate stooping. A ramp offers easy access from the side door to the kitchen.

The D.C. chapter of AARP, the senior citizen advocacy group, has transformed a vacant red brick house in Northeast Washington into a model home for universal design. It had help from the D.C. government, which owns the house, as well as from a number of contributors, including renowned architect Michael Graves.

Universal design incorporates features to make a home user-friendly for people of all ages and abilities, such as easy-to-grasp lever door handles and rocker light switches that work with just a light touch. The house is open to the public for tours this month and will become home to six older low-income women later this summer.

"Part of our goal and challenge is to educate people how easy it is to add elements to a home that they can age comfortably in," said Mimi Castaldi, director of the D.C. chapter of AARP. "Initially, I thought we might want to start with new construction, but most people in D.C. aren't going to be building new houses. We need to figure out how to have the house they're in age with them."

A 2006 AARP survey of Americans age 50 and older found that 89 percent want to stay in their houses as long as possible. The problem is that they don't know what they need to do that, said Elinor Ginzler, AARP's senior vice president for livable communities.

"We hear people saying: 'I never want to move again. I'm going to live here forever,' " Ginzler said. "What they don't say out loud when they buy a new house or renovate is 'I'd like to have wider doorways or a shower that's easy to get in and out of.' They don't realize what universal design features they need so they truly can stay there forever."

The Northeast D.C. house has been named for Ethel Percy Andrus, who founded AARP 50 years ago. The group credits her with building the District's first universal design house in 1961, on P Street NW, in conjunction with the first White House Conference on Aging.

That house has been razed, but many of Andrus's ideas and ones that have been developed more recently are incorporated into the renovated house, which is on the leafy grounds of the Washington Center for Aging Services. The campus also includes several other group homes and a nursing home operated by the D.C. Office on Aging.

The University of Maryland chapter of the American Institute of Architecture Students volunteered to help with the conversion of the garage into an accessible bedroom, laundry room and bath. Graves, who uses a wheelchair after a virus in 2003 destroyed nerve endings in his spine, mentored the students.

"I told them you have to sit in a wheelchair yourself, if not for a week, for a day at least, to really understand what needs to be done," he said. "It's important to understand that everything architects do isn't 'Oh, wow' architecture. It's more modest but can make a major impact in the day-to-day lives of people."

Graves, who became a household name with his sleek housewares for Target, is now turning his attention to making such items as canes and bathroom grab bars more appealing.

Students traveled to Graves's office and home in Princeton, N.J., for pointers. He helped them understand how wide to make the hallways and brainstormed with them on the type of door for the bedroom, ultimately deciding on a sliding one.

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