This Impressively Accessible Home Has a Tower That Can Be Reached by Wheelchair

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By Laura Mauk / Published by Dwell
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A Baltimore father builds a house with accessibility in mind—and finds a new calling in the process.

Silver linings aren’t always easy to find, but Ed Slattery sees them. "I tell people how lucky I am, and they look at me like I’m crazy," he says. 

“The new house has really liberated Matthew. My goal is that he will have access to everything by one means or another.” —Ed Slattery, resident

Almost five years ago, Slattery’s wife, Susan, drove their sons, Matthew and Peter, from their home in Baltimore, Maryland, to a family reunion in Ohio. On their way back, a truck driver fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into them. Peter broke his pelvis and eye socket but eventually recovered. Matthew, who suffered a traumatic brain injury, lost his ability to walk. Susan lost her life. 

Inside, cedar beams add warmth while polished concrete floors provide easy passage for Matthew’s wheelchair. Other universal-design features include drop-down mechanisms for the kitchen counters and cooktop from Freedom Lift Systems.

As Ed spent almost a month helping his sons recover at the Akron Children’s Hospital, he realized they needed a house with a ramp to come home to. His friends found a rental property, but a ramp was its only accessible feature. When Matthew was well enough to drive a powered wheelchair, "he made holes in the walls and knocked doors off hinges," Ed says. "He can’t see well, and his cognitive processing is slower." 

Ed Slattery, seen here with his son Matthew, wanted to create a sustainable home that is accessible without feeling like a hospital.

So, with settlement money from the trucking company and support from friends, Ed commissioned architects John Coplen, John Sage, and Adam Bridge, from Alter Urban Design Collaborative, to design a home that offered Matthew universal access.

Color and material cues help Matthew navigate the house. Reclaimed wood from a local barn marks the dining room, which also features a table from BoConcept, a Graypants pendant lamp, and molded-fiberglass chairs by Charles and Ray Eames. In the living room, the color palette of the Design Within Reach sofa and built-in bookshelves was inspired by maple trees in fall. “That’s really what universal design is about: making it as stylish as anything you’d put in anyone else’s house, but having the ability for it to be accessible,” says Coplen.

"We calculated the distance Matthew had to travel between spaces he interacts with in a regular day," Sage explains. "The kitchen, his room, his bathroom, and the exercise area are grouped primarily at the core"—letting Matthew navigate fewer corners and hallways. "Twelve-inch baseboards catch the wheels of his chair if he bumps into a wall," Coplen says. "The floors are radiant-heated concrete with inset rugs, so transitions are flat." 

One of the home’s more fanciful features is a meditation tower that offers views to Baltimore’s Loch Raven Reservoir and beyond.

A partial wall of reclaimed barn board in the kitchen and dining area has dark brown and gray tones that contrast with the blond hue of the cedar canopying the living room visual cues to help Matthew orient himself.  

A custom-designed chairlift system from Versicor allows Matthew access to the tower. “The new house has really liberated Matthew. My goal is that he will have access to everything by one means or another,” says Ed Slattery.

Toward the rear of the house, a tower offers epic views of the lush landscape. To reach the top, Matthew pulls himself up with a chairlift designed by Versicor, the Michigan-based controls and electronics company run by Coplen’s sister Christie. The power-assist system uses pulleys and a high-tech mix of Kevlar rope, lasers, and embedded electronics to measure the user’s weight and allows the operator to set the resistance, based on strength. Savant, an automation  system, allows Matthew to open doors, windows, and shades by pushing a button on his iPad. 

In Matthew’s room, a Guldmann lift system joins a Hudson bed from Room & Board, while Atlas Industries bookshelves showcase personal treasures. Carpet by Bloomsburg, backed with rubber padding so the wheelchair doesn’t sink, is inlaid to prevent trip hazards.

To create a home that was accessible from the street through to the very back of the yard, without having to include too many switchbacks, the architects dropped the house down a foot to get the proper slope. Now, Matthew is free to explore the organic garden and orchard or check out the 10-kilowatt solar panel system. He can also visit the green roof, which is planted with herbs. "The new house liberated him," Ed says. 

Like all Alter Urban projects, the Slattery residence had an overarching theme: Finding a New Normal. Seeing the transformative effect of the home on Matthew’s independence and well-being, Ed was inspired to start a nonprofit, also called Finding a New Normal, to help create accessible homes and universal design products for those dealing with disabilities. Christie and John Coplen sit on the board of the foundation, and serve as vice president and treasurer, respectively. "I know I’m lucky," Ed says. "I want to help families that aren’t."