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Saturday, November 13, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Design goal: Spaces for those of all abilities

By Marsha King
Seattle Times staff reporter

Ron and Jerri Schaevitz, of Lynnwood, and their dog Angel live in a home built to anticipate future mobility needs. Hallways are wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair.
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When Ron Schaevitz retired after 40 years at Boeing, he built a dream house designed to last a lifetime — even if infirmity sets in.

"It just stuck in my mind. Why should I have to move out?" asked Schaevitz, who lives with his wife in Lynnwood.

Good point.

Disability and old age force millions of people to leave homes and disconnect from communities simply because their physical needs can't be met by their environment.

So how do we make public and private spaces work for everyone, regardless of age or ability?

The answer emerging nationally and worldwide is something called universal design. In the Puget Sound area, it's a key component of the new monorail project, a few housing developments and many private homes.

Aging in Place

Today, a free Aging in Place Resource Fair from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Seattle Center House shows how universal design, home modifications and creative financing can help people remain in their homes as they age. Sponsors include the Seattle Center, the city of Seattle and its division Aging & Disability Services, as well as local businesses.

A new Coalition for Universal Design — made up of experts on aging, transportation, housing and recreation — is pushing the agenda.

"We're trying to pull our environments together to make them as usable as possible for all people," said Susan Duncan, a national expert on universal design and founder of ADAptations Inc., a Bellevue company that designs places for people of all abilities.

Aging baby boomers are adding urgency to this mission. They likely won't stand for social isolation because the world isn't built for their fading bodies.

Life expectancy is going to continue to increase, and the definition of "disability" has continued to broaden, said Sandra Hartje, associate professor of interior design and housing at Seattle Pacific University. That means the number of people who experience a disability in their lives is increasing, she said.

A goal is to establish a center at Seattle Pacific where developers, community leaders and the public can see what universal design looks like and how it can be used.

Universal design is based on several principles set forth by the Center for Universal Design, founded by an architect in 1989 at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Building and community design should be useful, safe and easy to use for people of all ages and abilities.

It should go beyond the legal requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandates that disabled people have access to commerce, recreation and travel.

And it shouldn't stigmatize people or set them apart. Rather than installing a single lower sink to accommodate wheelchair users, for example, all sinks in a public restroom could be at staggered heights.

Or take the monorail project. Nothing's final, but project managers intend it to be a prime example of universal design.

Through others' eyes

Citizens with a variety of disabilities and ages are acting as advisers.

Ron and Jerri Schaevitz have built their dream home with universal-design features that will allow them to age in place rather than move when they get old. The Schaevitzes included an elevator in their home that runs from the basement to the second floor.
Project managers received a day of "experiential training," led by Duncan's company. They used wheelchairs and special room-darkening glasses and relied on canes to become aware of the challenges people can have getting around.

That helped influence the design philosophy. Ideas being considered include level loading with no gaps or drops between the platform and the floor of the train. A specially textured pathway could guide people with limited vision. Another possibility is a high speed, see-through elevator so no one has to climb stairs. And designers are looking for ways to allow people with extra gear — be it a bike, wheelchair or stroller — to maneuver freely on the trains.

"People don't care what they're riding on. What they want is ease and consistency. That's the whole point of universal design," said Austin Jenkins, director of operations for the proposed monorail.

Developer involved

At least one housing developer is starting to use universal design.

"We see a real need for these features. They don't have to be in a very expensive home," said Brad Running, marketing manager for Northwest Housing Guild, a development firm.

The Guild, owned by his brother, is awaiting final approval to build a small community south of Rainier Beach of moderately priced, two-story homes including several with elevators roughed in or finished, wide hallways, kitchen countertops of varying heights and door levers instead of knobs.

The community also will be gated to permit residents to walk freely without worrying about traffic or getting lost.

The features should make it easier for someone to stay in their home despite the frailties of age or disability. "We've thought about this for many years," Running said. "Now's the time to do it."

Bringing it home

Meanwhile, individual homeowners are taking matters into their own hands.

In Arlington, Patrick McElrath and his wife, Renee, in their 30s, have built their second universal-design home. They've started an Experience Universal Design Web site so others can learn from their experience. They also give occasional tours of their home.

McElrath, a former Army Ranger and gun-team leader, was paralyzed after breaking his back parachuting during the Panama invasion in 1989.

After he was injured, the young couple at first didn't think accessibility mattered.

"We thought between the two of us — he was so strong, and I'm a nurse — that we could do anything together," Renee McElrath said.

But 10 years and three children later, they're not as strong as they used to be, and Patrick has gained 25 pounds.

Many of the products in their new home have been donated or discounted by the manufacturers, such as easy-to-use, single-lever faucets and a dishwasher that pulls out like a drawer so a wheelchair can come up alongside.

"We'll stay here while we're raising our children. In retirement we'll downsize," Renee McElrath said.

In Lynnwood, the Schaevitz home has hallways that are extra wide to accommodate a wheelchair. The doors have levers, so they can be opened with a push of an elbow. "If I have a handful of stuff going through a door, I don't want to have to put it down to twist a knob," Ron Schaevitz said.

An elevator is installed in case the time comes when Ron or his wife, Jerri, can't walk upstairs to the bedroom. Actually, it's already come in handy, after Jerri's knee operation.

A separate suite with a roll-in shower and flat pile rug is waiting for Jerri's 84-year-old mother, who uses a wheelchair and might move in with them after rehabilitation in a nursing home for a broken hip.

The 6,000-square-foot home cost $1 million.

"During the good years I frugally saved," Ron Schaevitz said. "Now I'm house poor."

But he said many of the features in their home — such as a flat front threshold instead of steps — shouldn't cost extra money and would work in any space.

How long do they plan to stay?

"At least 20 or 30 years," said Ron, who is now 69.

Marsha King: 206-464-2232 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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