Highly Accessible

Highly Accessible

By Erika Heet
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.

"When we first drove by the house, I saw the front and said, ‘No way,’" remembers Braitmayer of initially seeing the home, which was advertised as having a level entry. "But then we discovered the alley leading to the back of the house and the garage, which already had a ramp, as the previous owner’s wife also had a mobility limitation." After the family settled in, Braitmayer began working in the garden, which she says "can never really be finished—there always has to be something left to do."

"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."

The main living area, which includes a more formal sitting area near the entrance, the dining area, Braitmayer’s workspace and the kitchen, in which the couple’s daughter works at the island. In the foreground is a pair of mid-century chairs; at left is a Heywood-Wakefield that Braitmayer found at an antiques shop. Seattle-based designer Lucy Johnson completed the interiors. The windows are from Lindal, and the exterior doors are from Marvin.

A view from the dining area. The architects arranged for the large original fireplace to be taken down to maximize space, and added a new dividing wall between the living room and the kitchen. The island, outfitted with a gas cooktop from Fisher, is new. Its surface extends to an adjacent workspace, beneath which is plenty of clearance for wheelchairs or stools.

The kitchen cabinet wall provides storage and workspace, yet retains an open feel by stopping well beneath the ceiling. Sliding cabinets at the bottom reduce the number of space-hogging swinging cabinet doors, and a KitchenAid mixer is hidden behind the horizontal lift-up cabinet at right, which recesses into the wall. "The cooktop is at a height where I can see into my pot of spaghetti sauce," says Braitmayer. "I cook in this kitchen more than ever before." The countertops are heat-resistant, allowing more options for the person cooking. To the right of the sink is an ADA-compliant dishwasher from Miele. The pendant lights are from Progress Lighting.

The Kohler faucet was mounted on the side of the custom sink rather than at the back, and the tip detaches and extends from the base for better ease of use. The oven, from Fagor, "was the only side-opening oven of the right size we could find," says Sundstrom. The tile is from Ann Sacks.

Just inside the patio doors and near the dining table is Braitmayer’s work nook. The top drawer flips out to become a desk; the top cabinet slides straight up to reveal more storage. "It’s very organized," says Sundstrom.

The workstation, open. "This was our solution to providing Karen with a place to work at home," says Sundstrom. "She used to work in the bedroom, but we cut the room down considerably, and we thought it would be best to keep the bedroom as a place to relax."

The new family room has a built-in desk for the daughter, who often uses the room to hang out with friends. The kitchen is just on the other side of the wall at right and shares its row of interior clerestory windows.

The new, more intimately scaled master bedroom leads to an adjacent patio, which was repaved to gently slope from the doorway to new drains, which solved both an access and a water issue. Braitmayer planted quick-growing bamboo in galvanized troughs for privacy. At right is the seamless passage to the master bathroom. "There are no longer raised thresholds in the house," notes Braitmayer.

A simple bamboo ladder holds towels in the master bathroom, whose floors are radiant-heated. Just beyond the curtain at right is the curbless shower. Toto toilet.

The master bathroom has complementary his-and-hers sinks from Duravit, and Cifial faucets. Reflected in her mirror is a cabinet with a larger, full-length mirror inside.

The shower can accommodate two, and has Hansgrohe heads of differing heights with separate controls from Cifial. The residents stayed away from a built-in bench and opted to switch out a variety of tables and benches as needed, to avoid dealing with the mold or water stains that quickly materialize in a built-in. Tile from Statements.

Near the front-loading machine in the laundry room is a utility sink Braitmayer found at a restaurant supply store; she had the legs cut to her height specifications. The cabinets are from IKEA. "Happy colors are really important in Seattle, because it’s often gray," says Sundstrom. "The buttery yellow is a good mood lifter."

The architects created a mudroom off the garage with plenty of room for quick turnarounds and busy family comings and goings. Much of the garage had been taken up by a large ramp before the concrete floor was repoured on a slope that meets with the house, eliminating the need for a more cumbersome ramp and allowing room for storage shelves. "Your home is a place where you shouldn’t have to put out too much effort, whether you’re a person with a disability or not," says Braitmayer. "You should be able to reserve all that energy and effort for the outside world."

The floor plan, before renovation.

After renovation.


Get the Dwell Newsletter

Be the first to see our latest home tours, design news, and more.