For most families planning to build or renovate, functionality and ease of movement are essential. But in the case of a McLean couple designing a home to accommodate a physically disabled daughter, these ideas took on a whole new meaning. Marta, a nutritionist, and Michael, a scientist/entrepreneur, have three adult daughters including Gina, who relies on a wheelchair for mobility and a service dog to assist with daily activities.
When they relocated to the DC area from Illinois, Gina was off at college and, later, grad school. After she moved back in with her family a few years ago to start a job with the Department of Defense, they discovered that despite adaptations they’d made, getting around their house was too cumbersome for her. So Marta and Michael decided to tear it down and start anew.
Their goals were far-reaching: to make every room—including closets and bathrooms—completely accessible, and to incorporate independent but connected living quarters for Gina, now 31. Throughout the property, doors and passageways would have to be wide enough to accommodate Gina’s wheelchair and English Labrador, Susie. There could be no grade changes on the home’s three floors or in its exterior spaces. All lighting, security, HVAC and A/V systems would be controlled via iPhone or iPad, either hand-held or installed in each room.
“One residence would provide an environment for Gina to learn the skills required for living totally independent from us,” says Michael, “and the other would provide a home for us to age in place with room to accommodate our other daughters and their families when they visit.”
The couple selected a design team based not on experience in universal design but on the willingness to explore outside-the-box solutions. First, they tapped Phil Leibovitz of Sandy Spring Builders after admiring a house his firm completed nearby; he introduced them to McLean architect Glenn Chen Fong, whom they hired to design the home.
“In this case, ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] standards were not relevant as they didn’t accommodate a wheelchair and service dog side-by-side,” explains Fong. “Hours of discussions allowed us to add up all the parameters and take a fresh look at the accessible design. We truly reinvented the wheel.”
The existing awkwardly shaped lot—narrow on the street side but projecting almost 500 feet deep—turned out to be a boon to Fong’s design. Since Gina commutes to work via a Metro Access van, sitting her quarters near the street made sense, so he created a one-story cottage for her with the family home extending behind it.
Along, light-filled hallway bordering the family’s three-car garage links Gina’s cottage to the main home. “If Gina wants to live wholly independently, she can just close off the corridor,” the architect explains. “But if there’s an emergency, her parents can be there in a heartbeat.”
Guests arriving at the main house enter on the side into a gracious foyer, also accessible via Gina’s inner corridor. The main level encompasses living, dining and family rooms; a kitchen; a study; and a master suite. Though a grand staircase leads to the second floor, Gina can reach her two sisters’ bedrooms upstairs, as well as the lower level, via elevator. In the basement, the entire family works out in a gym and indoor SwimEx resistance pool.
As construction commenced, the clients hired designer Skip Sroka to pull together the interiors while addressing the challenges of accessibility—such as floor coverings. “Marta told me, ‘There will not be carpet in this house. The wheelchair will ruin the rug or, worse, the carpet will roll into the wheels,’” recalls Sroka. So he defined spaces with dramatic designs in the hardwood floors, from geometric patterns to an inlaid medallion in the couple’s shared study. “The patterns are strong enough that they create a welcoming sense,” he explains.
Though his clients also wanted to forgo drapery, Sroka convinced them window treatments were necessary to warm up the interiors. “It would’ve been too institutional if there wasn’t anything on the windows,” he comments. Botanical prints in natural colors reflect rich interior millwork.
Special care went into creating new furniture arrangements. The custom dining table, for example, was crafted to be wheelchair-accessible. “We have a place in every room where there’s space for another chair because that’s Gina’s spot,” says Sroka. “It’s just part of the design.”
Planning for a future when Gina will live in the home when they’re gone, Michael and Marta ensured that it would be as maintenance-free and sustainably designed as possible. Solar panels, geothermal heating and cooling and spray-foam insulation make it energy efficient. “Sustainability simply makes sense,” Michael says.
Now complete, the new home’s sophisticated exteriors and welcoming interiors belie the fact that it’s fully accessible. “To me, beauty is the inspiration for living,” Sroka reflects. “A physical limitation shouldn’t preclude you from that.
“Part of accessibility,” he continues, “is talking about what the person you’re designing for can do because it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.”
Gina would have to agree. “The house has greatly improved my lifestyle by being barrier-free,” she concludes. “Rather than the focus being my disability, I can focus on the abilities I have and what I can accomplish.”
Photographer Geoffrey Hodgdon is based in Deale, Maryland.
ARCHITECTURE: GLENN CHEN FONG, AIA, Arlington, Virginia. INTERIOR DESIGN: SKIP SROKA, CID, ASID, principal; ELIZABETH BAUSCH, lead designer, Sroka Design, Washington, DC. BUILDER: PHIL LEIBOVITZ, Sandy Spring Builders, Bethesda, Maryland.