Design balances style with accessibility in this Seattle home

July 2008 Journal Newspapers

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By Cathy Herholdt, Journal Newspapers

A casual observer would never notice that Bill Ferris and Marsha Donaldson's recently remodeled North Seattle home has been completely adapted to accommodate Bill's wheelchair. A wonderful example of using every bit of its 980 square feet for living space, the home's updated furnishings enhance rather than hinder the home's traffic flow, and bold colors enrich its clean, contemporary design.

"Being in a wheelchair in a small house, space is everything," said Bill, whose priority was to combine style with accessibility. "I'm very self-conscious about having a house that looks like it belongs to a disabled person. To the uninitiated person, I wanted it to look normal."

For the 34 years Bill has been in a wheelchair, he has lived in a variety of homes, almost all of which were rentals leaving him little ability to make changes. "[The home] either worked or I made it work," he said. But after two phases of remodeling, the couple's current home suits their style and fits both of their needs perfectly.

That wasn't always the case. When Bill and Marsha bought the house in 1996, they did very little except add a wood wheelchair ramp and widen the bathroom doorway. For several years, Bill couldn't turn around in the kitchen or hallway and could only access the backyard by going around the house. As their budget allowed, they began to make changes that not only worked better for Bill, but were aesthetically pleasing as well.

photo - accessible kitchenStarting with the kitchen, the couple worked with designer Susan Duncan, owner of the ABCs of Accessibility, on their renovation. A separate laundry room at one end was incorporated into the kitchen by removing a wall and adding a stacking washer and dryer, which opened up the space. Wider workspace, custom cabinets and a shallow sink with plumbing up against the wall allow Bill to function more efficiently. The microwave is below the counter and special drawers hold the trash and recycling near the sink. A small, wall-mounted table creates extra space in the eating area.

You have to look closely to see the creative details such as a disappearing doggie gate that slides behind cabinets when not in use. The former baby gate was cumbersome for Bill so contractor Guy DiRe of Chieftain Construction found a way to build in a new one.

Outside, a new concrete wheelchair ramp was designed to blend into the landscape and appear as a low wall from the front of the house. Bill got the idea from the University of Washington administration building where he works. They also expanded the back porch off the kitchen so Bill can enjoy a cup of coffee in the backyard without having to go around the side of the house.

During this initial phase, the cramped hallway, which was separated from the living room by a door, was reconfigured with an open archway to allow Bill more room to maneuver easily into the bedroom, office or bathroom.

Most recently, the couple hired Piper Salogga of Natural Balance to complete the project by bringing a fresh, contemporary look to the home's interior.

Too much furniture and clutter were getting in the way, so Piper showed them ways to open up more room, such as selling their large, long sofa on Craigslist and purchasing a smaller one. A dark wood dining table updated the look of the dining room and made room for entertaining.

"We wanted a place to have people over," said Marsha, who is thrilled with the result. "We recently had a sit down dinner for 15."

One of Marsha's favorite spaces is the office, which used to be crammed with two desks, shelves lined with books and pictures and very tight space.

"The whole idea is that you don't have to sacrifice the aesthetic you want in your home to have wider pathways," said Piper, who suggested having Bill and Marsha share a desk. The solution is a sleek, long Pottery Barn desktop mounted to the wall at the perfect height for Bill, with faux legs added to look like a desk. A comfy chair offers a spot to read and can easily be moved to use the room for guests, thanks to an inflatable mattress.

"We just love this room. We read in here and it's a nice place to talk on the phone," said Marsha. Switching to laptops and getting wireless Internet allows them to work in other areas as well.

"The key is less furniture and more functionality," said Piper, who nudged the pair out of their comfort zone a bit with color choices. "Marsha and Bill had really strong aesthetic tastes ... the color palette came directly from what they had around them."

Bill was grateful as well for Piper's expertise and ability to come up with creative ideas for use of space. "It was a matter of being open to her ideas - repainting, redefining furniture - it opened up a lot of room. From an accessibility point of view, it was really helping us think through things, like not needing a long sofa or putting the TV in a cabinet - looking at different items and the placement of them," he said.

The result? Bill says, "It just feels good, it feels right."

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