"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."
Erika Heet has been working in publishing for more than 20 years, including years spent as a senior editor at Architectural Digest and Robb Report. She has written for Architectural Digest, Robb Report, Interiors, Bon Appétit, Sierra Magazine, and The Berkeley Fiction Review. She recently wrote the foreword to New Tropical Classics: Hawaiian Homes by Shay Zak. She lives in a Topanga cabin with her artist husband and two children.