Imagine a house with rooms that can change level and dimensions.
It exists on a hilltop in Bordeaux, France. Designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas for a man with a spinal cord injury and his family, and exhibited in plan and photographs at the Museum of Modern Art last year, the house is the ultimate in modern chic.
What really excites Charles A. Riley II about the Bordeaux house is that it is a beautiful example of universal design -- whose goal is easy access for those with or without physical impairments.
''The universal design movement has entered into a new phase in which the focus is on making it beautiful,'' says Riley, author of ''High-Access Home: Design and Decoration for Barrier-Free Living'' (Rizzoli, $40 hardcover) and editor of WE magazine, a lifestyle magazine for those with disabilities.
The concept of universal design is generally traced back to the early 1970s, when work began at the Center for Accessible Housing at North Carolina State University to establish building codes for accessibility. These codes have been adopted by many states. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 to ensure public accessibility further raised consciousness. The current graying of the American population is also expanding the market that experts predict will take universal design into the mainstream.
What has been learned over three decades is that products that are too obviously ''therapeutic'' do not appeal.
''As people drive by a home with a conspicuous ramp or see tubular stainless steel grab bars in a hallway, they fall prey to their own fears of disease or disability,'' Riley says, and this makes them uncomfortable. ''The newest thinking on the topic is that invisibility is as important as functionality.''
How does this invisibility play out in decorating? With an emphasis on more attractive design.
''Years ago, products were institutional-looking and ugly. Today, manufacturers are pushing themselves to create more attractive products for use in the home,'' says interior designer Rosemarie Bakker of New York. ''It is getting easier, for example, to find bathroom grab bars and bath seats in colors and more colorful slip-resistant flooring.''
Of course, houses like the one in France by Rem Koolhaas are expensive. The house has a 10-foot-square room at its core that is, in essence, an elevator that can change levels to provide access for a wheelchair-user to reach the upper and lower floors as well as rooms with moveable Japanese-style sliding walls.
On a more modest level, it is surprisingly economical and easy to redo a home to make it comfortable, says Bakker, who specializes in designing for seniors and is affiliated with Weill Medical College of Cornell University.
Bakker came to her specialty as a result of her mother's fall at home. ''Ten years ago my mother fell, and I saw firsthand how typical American environments are inhospitable to aging."
Instead of sending her mother to a nursing home, she redecorated her mother's house, which resulted in 10 more years at home for the older woman. ''Fortunately, it didn't cost all that much. At a cost of about $100, we added a second handrail to the stairs, which enabled her to use her upper body strength to get up to the second floor.''
Other changes included removing door sills, adding grab bars in the bath, replacing flooring in the bath, kitchen and bedroom to make it slip-resistant, rearranging storage so most-used items were in the ''comfort zone'' between waist and eye level, and making use of lazy susans in closets and cabinets. New furniture that was easier to get into and out of and brighter lighting with cool fluorescent bulbs added comfort, as did a change in color scheme to provide greater color contrasts. Even something so simple as replacing cooking pots with new ones that have handles on both sides added to her mother's ability to remain active.
These tips and others are contained in Bakker's book, ''Elder Design: Designing & Furnishing a Home for Your Later Years'' (Penguin, $15 paperback).
Information by Web:
-- WE magazine - http://www.wemagazine.com
-- Rosemarie Bakker - http://elderdesign.homestead.com/elderdesign.html
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