Having lived in, and loved, a modern house built in 1954 in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood since buying it in 1996, architect Karen Braitmayer and her husband, marine mechanic David Erskine, recently came to realize that the house was overdue for some modifications. Braitmayer, whose firm, Studio Pacifica, specializes in universal access space planning and ADA compliance for commercial and residential projects, is a wheelchair user, as is her and Erskine’s teenage daughter. With its open layout and single-floor plan, the house worked fairly well for many years, but, as Braitmayer says, “It was really my daughter growing up that spurred us to make some changes. Her disability is a little bit different from mine, and some of the things I was able to work around for a long time weren’t going to work for her.” Braitmayer called in another architect, Carol Sundstrom of Seattle-based Röm Architecture Studio, who specializes in single-family remodels and with whom Braitmayer has collaborated on many projects.
“The layout of mid-century houses are generally favorable for wheelchair users,” says Sundstrom. Even so, she and Braitmayer had to make difficult, but necessary decisions on this house, such as eliminating the dominant, original fireplace to make way for a family room and to better utilize the home’s 2,000 square feet, especially those areas that would be accommodating two wheelchairs. The kitchen, once a tight fit for even one person, was completely reworked to cater to any user, and now has four different counter heights, a side-opening oven, smart cabinets and extra room in front of the sink. Still, the general footprint was left intact.
“It’s interesting—most people put every wheelchair user in the same category, and figure you should just build to ADA specifications,” says Sundstrom. “But when Karen and I work with wheelchair users, we don’t just open the guidelines for universal design and follow the instructions—we measure arm length and reach, and we consider with our clients how long we should anticipate muscle strength, and what must continue to adapt architecturally. In this case, Karen and her daughter have different requirements, and we also needed to think of David’s needs.”
For a moment, Braitmayer and Sundstrom considered adding a second floor, but abandoned the idea after concluding that the expense, effort and space required for an elevator and its mechanics would outweigh its benefits, and they ultimately wanted to keep the home’s mid-century vibe intact. Sundstrom conceived a plan that borrowed a bit of space from some rooms (such as the master bedroom, which had been larger) and added a bit to others (such as in the mudroom, directly off the garage). “Every fraction of an inch was considered in this project,” she says.
“I think I had been a bit blinded by all the years we spent in the home and all the time we worked around things,” says Braitmayer. “Carol helped us take a fresh look and go forward with the biggest change, which was removing the large fireplace—we sacrificed a bit of the architectural character for usability. The fun part was personalizing our space to make it really accessible, and attempting some things I might not necessarily have been able to try for a client. It was like our own, fun little laboratory.”