Imagine the world from a single spot on the floor, in a small wheelchair where most things extend beyond your reach. For two growing boys in Virginia, a conventional home with inadequate access on almost every front limited their participation in family life and put the burden, in every sense of the word, on their parents. Everyday tasks such as entering and exiting the house, bathing, studying and recreation challenged backs and brains; the need to do better for their family becoming a decade-long mission for aerospace engineer and Navy Captain Andy Cibula and his wife, Jennifer.
California transplants who’d “looked at 100 homes” in Reston, Springfield, Chantilly and other places during relocation efforts in 1999, their quest to find a ranch home for their first physically challenged child (the younger child was not yet born) was compromised by doorways and hallways not wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair. Finally settling upon a rambler in Reston, a restrictive home owner’s association handicapped a planned expansion after the birth of a second child with cerebral palsy in 2001, precipitating a move in 2003 to a four-bedroom, 2,500 s.f. rambler in Oakton - purchased with the intent to bump out the back of the house.
“We met with a few architects and no one was listening,” Jennifer Cibula recalled. “Bob (Robert Wilkoff, President, Archaeon Architects & Planners) was open to anything and everything, with a background in accessibility issues. The combination of the two really sold us,” she said.
Scion of late renowned industrial designer William L. Wilkoff, who’d pioneered many of the nation’s forays into universal, or barrier-free, design, was president of ASID (American Society of Interior Designers), served on the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities and co-authored Practicing Universal Design: An Interpretation of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), the younger Wilkoff carefully identified inherent design challenges in renovating an existing home that needed not only to accommodate disabled and growing children, currently ages 12 ½ and 9, but to enrich their lives as well.
With initial meetings in 2003, and various medical and other issues precluding the family’s full immersion into the project until 2008, Wilkoff set out to create an environment that would embrace the children and eventually also support their mother, whose burgeoning orthopedic problems (she sometimes uses a cane) are the result of years of heavy lifting. The quest for specific products, fixtures and features that worked with the boys’ capabilities and limitations had many iterations over five years, Wilkoff said, noting that products came and went from manufacturers. Preliminary plans to expand through the back of the house were later jettisoned in favor of a complete renovation, with demolition (or “deconstruction,” where items are taken apart, inventoried and repurposed at another site) begun on July 15 and the family taking up temporary residence down the block.
“The house is elevated off the ground by four or five steps,” Wilkoff said, noting the Cibula’s had to lift the boys in their wheelchairs several times a day. Inside, they could move through the halls and into their bedrooms in wheelchairs, but bathrooms and kitchens did not conform to the children’s needs. A finished basement down a flight of stairs with play space, adjacent to the garage where the family’s handicap van parks and lets them out, was also out of the children’s reach.
Among the first orders of business is a full elevator to utilize the basement, though according to Wilkoff the challenge lies in codes for residential elevators that have a maximum footprint which will not accommodate two wheelchairs. “Their mom has to be with both kids – get them both into the elevator and move them up and down,” Wilkoff explained. “Otherwise, you’d have to put one in, go up, come down, put the other one in, which is just insane so we are seeking a special exception to code without the expenditure of putting in a commercial elevator, which costs three times as much.”
In the boys’ bedrooms which will flank a common bathroom, a ceiling track will allow a push button-controlled lift to travel from their beds to the bathroom, with a turnstile ferrying the boys to shower, bath or individual lavatories which can move up and down 18 inches as they grow. Fold-down grab bars will punctuate the space and can disappear when not in use. Precluding the need for heavy wheelchair transfers by their parents or a caregiver when lavatory-bound, the boys can be rolled from bed into a suspended harness which goes up and down. For dressing, rods and shelving in the closets drop down where the children can access them from their wheelchairs.
In the bathroom, a tub with sliding 30-inch door will facilitate movement from a wheelchair, should the boys not be in the lift, directly into the tub. “There have been accessible tubs around for a long time with little swing doors,” Wilkoff said, “but the problem was that they’d been designed for somebody who could walk into them. This tub is elevated to the same level as the seat of a wheelchair, so someone can slide themselves in and close the door.” Where the shower, which is separate, is concerned, Wilkoff said “…basically the entire bathroom is built as a shower; there’s no curb and the floor pitches over very gradually toward the actual shower space so any water that spills (from other sources) will roll over to it.” In the parents’ bathroom, a similar no-threshold shower and a tub conceived for transfers (not the same as the one in the boys’ bathroom) will also accommodate Jennifer if her condition worsens. Back in the boys’ bathroom, a push button-operated changing table that folds against the wall will move from floor all the way up to table level, where the children can be dried and dressed.
According to Jennifer, because their older son has the use of one hand with very good dexterity and his brother, though more challenged, can operate push buttons and the like with some focus, it was important to have a kitchen and family room that encouraged their participation in various activities. To that end, at the push of a button the kitchen counter will raise and lower 14 inches for wheelchairs to slide underneath and cabinets on wall-mounted, articulated lifts will descend to wheelchair height where the boys can open doors and retrieve objects. In the family room, desks will move up or down to accommodate different wheelchairs as the children grow, and wall cabinets that store school supplies will function on the same principle as those in the kitchen. The finished basement, with an exercise room, is also home to the train room, where Andy Cibula keeps large-scale trains that the boys love. “They run them all around the yard, so we’re building this room with a mini-garage door so they can go from inside the house, drive around the yard and come back,” Wilkoff smiled. On this level, just outside the elevator, a “wheelchair corral” will provide storage for pieces of equipment not being used in the house.
In Full Bloom
Outside the front door, Wilkoff indicated plans became “tricky” when the home’s elevation had to be raised even more than the old structure - the impetus, low headroom in the basement. As such, a series of complicated ramps in the guise of a meandering walkway with engaging landscaping will be created to facilitate the boys’ egress as they wheel down to grade level and out to the bus, a distance increased by the design but originally deemed “55-60 feet as the crow flies,” according to Wilkoff.
Aesthetically, because interior spaces are large and high, hall ceilings will be visually broken up for the boys’ interest. The bottom cord of the roof trusses will protrude through the ceiling in one place, and a deep bench storage seat at the end of the hallway will invite them to sit and read or play.
“I don’t think people realize good design can be compatible with this kind of functionality,” Wilkoff said, explaining that to Archaeon Architects & Planners, this is not an issue at all. “When you walk into this house, it’s going to be a custom, beautiful home. No one will look at it and say it looks a little bit like a nursing home or hospital facility, something very important to Andy and Jennifer and to the boys as they grow up.” In fact, very much in the Cibulas’ plans is the practicality of a caregiver feeling comfortable in the house for the rest of the boys’ lives when their parents are gone.
“If you take all of the elderly now, and the preemies (premature babies) who all died in the past – now they’re surviving with these disabilities,” Jennifer said. “Ten years ago they didn’t make it, but they do today,” she added, affirming the increasing need for design, without stigma, that both facilitates and enriches their lives.
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