Custom home allows all access

Bend resident Chris Fellows builds home to better serve his needs

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By Penny Nakamura / For The Bulletin

Published: August 05. 2008 4:00AM PST

photo of chrisAfter house hunting for nearly six months, looking at almost all the homes Bend had to offer in his price range, Chris Fellows finally gave up — not because those houses weren’t appealing, but because some of those homes he couldn’t even enter.

Fellows, 35, is a wheelchair user, and what he needed was a home that was wheelchair accessible.

“A ton of those houses, I couldn’t even get to the door because of steps, and if I made it to the doorway, lots of times it was too narrow to get through,” explained Fellows with a sigh of resignation. “And if I made it through the front door, I often couldn’t get beyond the living room.”

Soon, Fellows realized the few homes he thought he could remodel for wheelchair accessibility would cost $60,000 to $100,000 to retrofit, which would’ve put him way over his price range.

So, without a lot of options left for housing, Fellows, who had been living in an apartment that was “marginally wheelchair accessible,” decided it was time to build a custom home on the south side of Bend.

With his parents Ron and Mary Fellows acting as project managers, contractor Terry Rennie, who had done some wheelchair-accessibility remodels on a few homes, and accessibility consultant Susan Duncan, Fellows had his team in place.

Though Fellows has been in a wheelchair most of his life due to spina bifida, there were disability dilemmas he couldn’t envision in building his home, and this is where ABCs of Accessibility inc. owner and consultant Duncan came in.

Universal design

Working with a small plastic wheelchair model made to scale with the blueprints, Duncan was able to move this wheelchair model with a handle, which allowed architects and contractors to see where they might have to expand hallways, move walls or make rooms larger.

“Basically, you’re working with a 5-foot radius with a wheelchair user,” explained Duncan, who’s been working as an accessibility counselor for 30 years. “If there’s a caregiver involved, someone who pushes a wheelchair, you need a 6½-foot radius.”

Providing enough maneuvering room was a challenge in this 1,600-square-foot house, which boasts two bedrooms and two full bathrooms, plus an office area, said Duncan. She follows the universal design model.

Universal design was coined two decades ago by architect Ron Mace, who spent most of his life in a wheelchair. He believed living space should be functional for everyone in the household, not just for someone in a wheelchair.

“It should be functional, but also aesthetically pleasing, and most importantly safe for Chris,” said Duncan, who put a lot of thought into the kitchen, where Fellows likes to cook. “Most counters are 36 inches high, this obviously didn’t work for Chris, who felt he couldn’t do this or that, but I told him you can do this, if you have the accessibility. There are so many nuances in the initial planning — it has to be done before you start the brick and mortar. It’s better to be proactive in design rather than reactive after it’s done.”

Duncan left some countertop heights at 36 inches for visitors, like Fellows’ parents, who might want to use the kitchen as well, but she modified some counters down a few inches lower. The cooktop area went down to 28 inches, and the sink was lowered to 30 inches, with ample knee space, so Fellows can roll his chair underneath and have a comfortable workspace.

Duncan worked for hours consulting with Fellows, stacking cookbooks and measuring the height that was comfortable for him. She even had Fellows stirring a pot on top of the stacked cookbooks, to make sure the height was comfortable.

Because Fellows enjoys cooking, four cutting boards were built in strategic places throughout the open kitchen.

A working kitchen

Fellows goes to his convection oven and demonstrates how he would take a casserole or cake out of his oven. His new oven opens to the side, rather than the usual up-and-down door models. This side-hinged door allows him to reach in without burning himself on the oven door. From this point, Fellows can slide the baking dish to his right where a cutting board is pulled out. All this can be done without Fellows having to move his wheelchair.

Another area that Duncan thought was critical for function and safety in the kitchen was the cooktop.

She designed the cooktop close to the sink, so Fellows could slide a boiling pot or hot pan to that area.

“Lots of times someone in a wheelchair will take a boiling pot off the stove and place it on a lapboard on their lap. But you can see when it splish-splashes, it can burn the person. And sometimes they may forget to place a lapboard on their lap, and they may not even feel themselves getting burned,” explained Duncan.

Fellows looks around his kitchen and says this is probably his favorite room in his newly built home.

Though the counters, sink and cooktop are lowered, Fellows spared no expense in using higher-end materials on his granite countertops and slate backsplash.

His side-by-side black refrigerator is also accessible; he says he tried out every appliance in the store before buying to make sure he could reach shelves and handles.

Classy home

The kitchen opens up to a dining area, where Fellows has placed a dark maple, square table. This area opens up to the living room, where Fellows has his collection of Rock Band video game guitars and drums lined up for his next party. Because he enjoys music, Fellows made sure he had surround sound engineered into this room.

Fellows also specified he wanted a gas fireplace in his living room. He can easily ignite it with a flick of an accessible switch.

Having light switches and electrical outlets placed in easy-to-reach places was another area in which Duncan advised the contractors.

The living room is the only room in the house with carpeting; throughout most of his home, Fellows has used various vinyl tiles, which have to be touched to be believed that they aren’t slate or wood floors.

“This carpeting is actually a commercial-grade carpet. It’s pretty flat — most carpets that you see in homes have really thick padding, which is hard for wheelchair users, because it doesn’t have a lot of give,” explained Mary Fellows.

The subtle yellow walls in the living room highlight the dramatic angles and vaulted ceilings of the one-story home.

“It’s not just functional, but it looks nice, too,” said Mary, pointing to the different angles. “It has class; it’s not just a box.”

Between the kitchen and living room, Fellows has a wide window door that leads out to the patio area of his backyard.

All the doors in the house are nearly flush with the floor, making it easier for Fellows to maneuver his wheelchair.

Going past the living room, Fellows rolls down the wide hallway to his master bedroom, which Duncan made sure had enough maneuvering room on both sides of his bed, even if he should put in a king-size bed.

Large windows in the bedroom were measured to the perfect height, where Fellows could also enjoy the views to his backyard.

“Most of us aren’t in a wheelchair 24/7, and sometimes people will just slap in windows. But we really need to think about what is the eye level for someone in a wheelchair? Also, you need to think about the locks and the hardware on the window,” said Duncan. “You can’t get so caught up in the design that you forget about the person you’re designing for.”

Practicality

The master bedroom also has a 36-inch doorway that leads out to the patio area. This was important not only for access to the outside but also for an emergency exit.

Through the backyard, the most challenging part of the home was putting in the cement sidewalk ramp that leads to an alleyway, said Fellows.

“The first ramp they put in was way too steep, so it had to be torn out,” he said. “Finally, they designed a ramp in the shape of a (sideways) V, which zigzags down, instead of (going) straight down, making it less steep.”

Back in his bedroom, Fellows leads us to his attached master bathroom with double sinks.

His sink area is lower, with ample knee space that allows him to roll his chair comfortably underneath the sink. Between the two sinks is a Jack-and-Jill cupboard with a garage-style door that allows either sink user easy access to toiletries.

Fellows opted out of putting in a curbless shower, feeling more comfortable with a regular tub shower with a seat.

Fellows rolls out of the master bathroom and shows off his laundry room, which he outfitted with a front-loading, high-efficiency washer and dryer.

Front-loading appliances were key for Fellows, who found when he lived in an apartment building that the laundry room (which was down some steps) has a top-loading washer that was extremely difficult for him. He confesses he used to bring his dirty laundry to his parents’ home.

Also in his new laundry room is a large sink, and a special cupboard with a custom-made cat door that allows room for the cat box.

“When you’re designing a universal designed home, you should take into account the pets, too. Before, you might have had cat bowls or a litter box on the ground, which can get in the way of a wheelchair, but if you plan for it, you can find room for it,” said Duncan.

Duncan says to build with the universal design principles adds only 2 percent to 4 percent to the total cost of building a conventional home. That extra amount is often tax deductible, she said.

Contractor Terry Rennie said he thought the total cost of upgrading to a universal design for Fellows’ home came in at only a few thousand extra dollars, and now that he’s building other custom homes he says he advises his clients to design with some of the universal design concepts he learned.

“Sometimes I will advise them that they might want to consider putting in wider hallways, or wider doorways, because you really never know when you might become disabled, and it’s easier and cheaper to do it while we’re building a home than to come back and try to retrofit some of those things in,” said Rennie. “It was surprisingly cost-effective to build with universal design.”

Fellows, who works as a customer representative for TGR Customer Solutions, says his house is perfect, and though the entire process from planning to finish took almost a year, he now realizes the planning was what really makes this house work for him.

“I’m glad it’s over. It was a long process — a lot of decisions — but I love it, and I wouldn’t change a thing,” said Fellows with a satisfied smile. “It’s open, has a nice flow and it’s a good party place.”

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