June 27, 2008

AARP Unveils Universal Design Home in Washington, D.C.
Andrus House to serve as a home to six low-income D.C. seniors; many organizations offered support

by Russell Boniface
Associate Editor

How do you . . . create a universal design home for six elders by partnering with several organizations that donate resources, expertise, and products?

Summary: The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) held a ribbon cutting on June 5 to unveil its Washington, D.C., universal design model home. Called Andrus House, the home honors AARP’s 50th anniversary and a 1961 universal design home built in the city by AARP founder Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus in conjunction with the first White House Conference on Aging.

The two-story brick AARP Andrus House in Washington, D.C., showcases universal design—the concept of making spaces accessible and comfortable for occupants regardless of their age or physical ability. The house has six universal design bedrooms, including a basement still being fitted. Andrus House is a remodeling of an existing, vacant house that featured a garage, since converted into a bedroom, laundry room, and bathroom.

AARP partnered with the District of Columbia Office on Aging, the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS), University of Maryland Freedom by Design Program, architect Michael Graves, FAIA—who himself uses a wheelchair—and Communities Group Homes (CCGH), a nonprofit service of Episcopal Senior Ministries (ESM) that helps seniors age safely in their homes. AARP worked with Clark Construction Group, Rebuilding Together of Washington, D.C—a group that renovates homes for seniors—and the Washington Architectural Foundation, which provided an architect from SK&I Architectural Design Group.

Many additional organizations donated expertise and products, including a landscape design by Holt Jordan of Jordan Honeyman Landscape Architecture that integrates an existing concrete ramp with functional ambient spaces; trees, shrubs, and flowers by Evergro Landscaping, Inc.; universal kitchen cabinets by Reico Kitchen & Bath; and kitchen appliances and a universal design front-loading washer/dryer with pedestal by General Electric. Tours of Andrus House continue through the end of June, at which time it becomes home to six low-income-seniors.

Andrus House—getting started
Andrus House is on a senior campus on property allocated by the District of Columbia government and managed by CCGH. Originally, AARP approached CCGH about creating a new model house, says AARP Executive Director Mimi Castaldi. “They said the challenge in D.C. is teaching people how to transform existing buildings, so we got the idea of showing people what they can do to their own houses,” she recalls. “In retrospect, it probably would have been easier to build a new house, but it has been a great learning experience. Our goal was to start a dialogue that could teach our members what they can do to their own homes, and also teach the community of builders, designers, and contractors what they can do with universal redesign. Universal design doesn’t involve huge differences, but people have to learn because the small changes make a huge difference in people’s lives.”

Working with AIAS, Michael Graves; Clark Construction comes on board
AARP approached the District of Columbia government to allocate the property and more than $400,000 in construction and support costs. CCGH served a consultant and will ultimately identify the home’s residents.

“The city already put aside capital funds to renovate the home, but their initial plans weren’t universal design,” explains Castaldi. Phase I of remodeling was already under way in 2007 to get the house up to code. The initial contractor gutted it and installed drywall, electrical, air and heating, panels, plumbing, fixtures, and floors.

Once it was decided to go with the universal design, AARP worked with the contractor to begin tweaking the home. “The contractor did basic work—they widened the doorways, put in easy-to-use windows, lowered the light switches, put in bathroom walls with grab bars, and raised the electrical outlets.”

Rebuilding Together connected AARP with Clark Construction Group to pick up the universal design in Phase II. Kelly Wallace, vice president of Clark Construction Group, donated his time and services and lined up pro bono services from about a dozen subcontractors.

AARP approached AIAS, which had a design competition with students around the country who visited the house. AIAS recommended AARP invite University of Maryland chapter students to work with Michael Graves, who mentors students. Graves was enthusiastic.

Says Castaldi, “The students did the initial design work and visited Michael Graves with Kelly Wallace. Together, they designed an accessible bedroom, bathroom, and laundry room out of an existing step-down garage. They really helped us think it through. The bathroom in particular will be state-of-the-art and fully usable for someone in a wheelchair or not in a wheelchair.” The Washington Architectural Foundation came on board to provide an architect, SK&I Architectural Group.

A large group learning experience
Wallace says Phase II was challenging. “For example, the first contractor put in a standard kitchen, with a wall and a small encased opening. We had to redo the kitchen by removing the wall to make the kitchen open and functional as a dining room.” Doorways were ultimately widened and walls removed to create open spaces throughout to accommodate wheelchairs.

Adds Castaldi, “Although it was a challenge, everyone was excited and realized what a difference it would make. You could see how people’s minds were changing, and that made it fun. It was a large group learning experience. At the beginning, when we were trying to line people up, it was hard to explain, but once we got the Washington Architectural Foundation—and then General Electric to donate universal design appliances—it helped us get people involved.”

A model of universal design
Elinor Ginzler, senior vice president, AARP Livable Communities Office of Social Impact, and a universal design expert, says universal design for AARP is cross-generational. “It’s for all people of all ages and all abilities. It’s not about building a house for someone who has a disability. It really is the essence of what mainstreaming is all about in the purest sense of the word.”

There are many notable features of Andrus House, especially in the kitchen. The stovetops are low to the ground, and the microwave is inside it. Countertops are at varying levels so seniors will be able to work standing or sitting. The upper wall cabinets are set lower, and cabinets deeper than 12 inches have pull-out shelving so that the rear of the cabinets can be reached. The dishwasher and oven are raised, and the refrigerator is double-sided.

To allow wheelchair-users to get closer access, there’s a nine-inch toe-kick space beneath the base cabinets, countertops, oven, stovetop, and dishwasher—as opposed to the standard three inches—and roll-under space beneath the kitchen sink and stovetop. Appliances and temperature gauges can “talk” to assist the sight-impaired.

“Throughout the house there’s as much open space as possible,” explains Ginzler. “There’s no dining room, so you can easily go from the dining area to the kitchen area, and the thresholds are even. People can maneuver across one room to another without stepping up or stepping down.”

The bathrooms include a roll-under sink and roll-in showers with grab bars. Bedroom closets have double shelving, while the washer and dryer are front-loading. Light switches were lowered and outlets raised to reduce the need for bending or reaching, while lever door handles and rocker light switches help people with poor hand strength or those entering with packages. There is also a chairlift to the second floor.

Says Ginzler, “Universal design is building a house with features that make a home safe and comfortable and provide ease for everyone all the time across a lifespan and across a capability range. For example, a 34- or 36-inch doorway will help in all circumstances, whether you’re an older person coming through in a wheelchair, a mom rolling a double stroller through, or anyone moving in an overstuffed chair or carrying an armful of groceries. It’s a set of principles that seek to inspire all architects and builders to embrace so, when they’re building a house, for example, they wouldn’t think to build a 24-inch doorway.”

The ramp and the landscaping: Beautiful and functional
A concrete ramp leads to the doorway and into the kitchen, with the threshold lowered. The landscaping is currently under way, and plans include the ramp to integrate with functional ambient spaces. Trees, shrubs, and flowers have recently been planted.

“In an ideal universal design home, you would have a no-step entry,” Castaldi describes. “If you are rolling in a wheelchair or carrying something, you go right in. Because of the existing design, we couldn’t make it a no-step entry because it would have required raising the landscape to the level of the front and rear doors, which would have blocked window space that we are using in the basement. But we didn’t want the house to look different from other houses. We talked to Michael Graves about it, and he said that sometimes you just need a ramp. But he said if you’re going to do the no-step entry, you want to landscape the ramp so anybody driving by would think it was a beautiful set up. Plantings are now growing to landscape the ramp area. The landscaper is building ambient spaces and a walkway from the ramp to the front of the house where he’s building a patio. The design intent is to make the outdoor living spaces accessible and the landscaping something people would look at and want to have.”

A call to architects
Ginzler enthuses that Andrus House is AARP‘s vision of how all homes should look. “I would tell architects there’s a tremendous value in learning universal design principles and incorporating those into their designs, because they’re going to find that people will say it’s awfully convenient and comfortable. In fact, we at AARP encourage architects to help us as our educators. I hope universal design becomes standard practice, and those who have universal design experience help us in our quest to broaden it to become standard.”


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AARP is working with the National Association of Home Builders to offer “Certified Aging in Place Specialist” classes in Washington, D.C., that will lead to certification. The course is designed for architects, designers, and building contractors and will teach universal design. AARP D.C. will offer 20 scholarships to local small and minority owned businesses to attend these classes. Visit the AARP Web site for more information.

Click here to visit the AARP Web site for a complete list of the organizations that contributed to the Andrus House project.

1. A shower stall replaces the traditional tub and toilet grab bars to help make the bathroom in the AARP Andrus House in Washington, D.C., universally accessible.
2. Pullout shelves allow users to reach items in the back.
3. Note toe space around this easy-to-reach and -use stove.
4. Toe space also allows a wheelchair user to get closer to the dishwasher.
5. The oven has been placed to allow wheelchair users easy access.
6. The kitchen sink features indented space as easy-to-operate sink handles.
7. A below-counter microwave ensures easy access.
8. Flat thresholds at door ways allow easy entrance for wheelchair users and everyone else.
9. Front-loading washers and dryers assure that wheelchair users can reach them.
(All photos courtesy of AARP.)

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The AIA’s resource knowledge base can connect you to the Universal Design newsletter. A January 2008 issue features an article on HOK Sports’ wheelchair accessible design in the new Nationals Ballpark.

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