- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2000

Russ Holt rejected the trendy center island for his new house, choosing instead an open floor space large enough to accommodate an imaginary circle 5 feet in diameter. "I do a lot of work in the kitchen," he notes. And if you're in a wheelchair, as he is, "You need to be able to do a 5-foot turn in the kitchen," he says.
Mr. Holt, 31, has used a wheelchair since 1986, when he was injured in a car accident. He was a senior at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville at the time.
He has lived in his new house in the upper Montgomery County community of Boyds since 1998.
"I had the idea about the house back in '95," he says. "I had this big long list" of features that would make it possible to live independently.
But it was more than that. "The whole concept is, if you didn't know I owned it, you wouldn't know it was built for someone with a disability," he says.
That concept is known as "universal design," although Mr. Holt didn't know it at the start.
Universal design is slowly making its way into the mainstream. Like so many Americans, who have never heard of universal design, Mr. Holt learned the term from Tom Bernitt, president of Burlington Homes of Potomac, a custom builder who specializes in barrier-free and accessible housing and renovation. Mr. Bernitt built Mr. Holt's house.
The house "was designed and built for accessibility and is unobtrusively integrated within an existing community without making it seem special, medical, clinical or different," Mr. Bernitt says. "The house has an exciting floor plan with dramatic ceilings, angled walls, panoramic views, 21st century wiring and the latest product and design features for accessible housing."
He says, "Universal features are generally standard building products or features that have been placed differently, selected carefully or omitted."
Mr. Holt is pleased with the front entry to his house, which has a gently sloping front walk with a low stone wall on the outside that matches the stone foundation of the home. The walk leads to a covered front porch framed by two classical columns.
The front walk is actually a wheelchair ramp, but no one would recognize it as that without being told. "The ramp is almost invisible," Mr. Holt says.
Among other features of the house that are not necessarily recognizable as specially designed for him are extra-wide doorways and halls, a walk-in or roll-in closet in the master bedroom, slightly lower-than-normal cabinets and counter tops in the kitchen, casement windows with conveniently placed cranks and lower-than-normal light switches and thermostat.
The house, completed in October 1998, also contains many bells and whistles many people want in their new homes: a magnificent stone fireplace, a dramatic tray ceiling, gleaming oak floors, several sets of wide glass patio doors with a deck outside and a two-car side-loading garage.
I got the floor plan off a CD called 'Home Designs,'" Mr. Holt says, "and sent for the blueprints. I was making my own universal design. I work in the disability field" for the Endependence Center of Northern Virginia in Arlington. "We help people to live more independent lives by way of advocacy and goal setting."
"Russ brought me the floor plan," Mr. Bernitt says, and "we tweaked it to accommodate his lifestyle."
"When I brought the plan to Tom, he knew about universal design," Mr. Holt says. "Tom's great… . He showed me some stuff that made it even easier to live here," including the crank-out casement windows in place of sash windows. I didn't know the dishwasher could be raised up" slightly to allow kick space for the wheelchair to move in closer, Mr. Holt says.
Further help came from David Creech, a "home modifier and problem solver" who Mr. Holt says "supplied most of the universal design concepts" and installed a chairlift in the house. Mr. Creech specializes in modifying existing homes for people with disabilities.
Mr. Holt's house is a rancher with 2,400 square feet of living space on the main floor and another 2,400 square feet on a lower level, which is mostly finished.
While a chairlift is not an element of universal design, Mr. Creech says, people customize their houses with individual conveniences to suit their needs. Mr. Holt's lift is a platform that folds against the wall at the top of the staircase to the lower level. Large enough to accommodate a wheelchair and a total of 450 pounds of weight, it falls into place with the push of a button. It cost $12,000, Mr. Holt says.
The other thing most unusual about the house is the master bathroom, which is, in effect, a large shower room with a drain in the middle of the ceramic tile floor. There is no bathtub or shower pan with threshold lip to obstruct a wheelchair or to trip over, Mr. Creech pointed out.
Mr. Holt can simply roll into the shower room, and there are faucets conveniently set into the wall and a hand-held shower.
"In many [other] instances, we mount a folding chair on the wall," Mr. Creech says.
He is president of Creative Design Contractors in the Charles County town of Bryans Road.
While new-home builders do not "find it a lucrative market," universal design is moving into the mainstream with demand increasing as the population ages, Mr. Creech says.
In a kitchen, for instance, there are manufacturers who are putting faucets on the side of a sink instead of at the back to make them easier to reach, he says. And, "some architects and some builders are starting to look at wider hallways and wider doorways" for easier accessibility.
Still, there is "a dire need not being met," he says. "Accessible homes are worth their weight in gold. We constantly hear from customers who are looking for accessible homes or homes that can be modified for their needs."
Part of the problem, he says, is that most homes built in the Washington area are multilevel homes, while the easiest to modify for accessibility are on one level.
Mr. Holt says his house cost $215,000, not including the lot. He estimated that it cost 10 percent more than it would have without universal design. The 10 percent includes the $12,000 for the platform lift.
It took a long time and blood, sweat and tears," he says, but I made it."

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