An unusual home sits atop a hill in a neighborhood of ramblers, with a forested hillside as its backdrop. Located on two acres, the dynamic, modern structure belongs to Ed Slattery and uniquely reflects his life and vision.
The home’s story began six years ago when a trucker, asleep at the wheel, barreled into the car Slattery’s wife was driving; the couple’s two sons, Peter, 16, and Matthew, 12, were also in the vehicle. Sadly, Susan was killed and both boys badly injured. But while Peter recovered, Matthew sustained severe injuries that resulted in cognitive and visual disabilities. Henceforth, he would need to rely on a wheelchair for mobility. The family’s lives were changed forever.
Matthew endured six months in a coma before he was well enough to come home. His father began to consider how to create a space that would make his son’s life the best it could be; Ed’s sister has cerebral palsy, so he already understood the needs of a wheelchair user. “I wanted a house where Matthew could go everywhere and do whatever he wanted to do,” Slattery says. “I knew what the requirements were.”
After purchasing a lot in Timonium, Slattery, a retired economist, tapped Alter Urban Design Collaborative to create a universally accessible home that would also address another goal dear to his heart: sustainability. John Coplen and partners John Sage and Adam Bridge enthusiastically enlisted, making universal design the main priority but designing the project through a highly energy-efficient lens.
“A big goal was that the house not feels institutional,” says Coplen. “Matthew had spent enough time in hospitals; he needed something functional but beautiful.”
Alter Urban envisioned an open, wheelchair-friendly floor plan. An abundance of wood appealed to Ed’s rustic sensibility; the rest of the design is clean-lined and modern. A simple material palette includes cedar-paneled walls and ceilings, Douglas fir beams, accent walls of reclaimed barn wood and concrete floors with inlaid carpets that delineate living areas. “We thought about how universal design elements address different issues,” Coplen comments. “For Matthew’s impaired vision, we offered bright colors and changes in patterns and surfaces that help orient him in each space.”
Twelve-inch baseboards protect the walls from bumps and cantilevered built-ins accommodate wheels. Pocket doors and swing-away hinges ensure wheelchair movement from room to room and push buttons at the front and back entries and on his chair allow Matthew to open doors. The design also leveled the steeply sloped property enough so an all-terrain wheelchair would be able to navigate it.
In the kitchen, shelves and a convection cooktop can be raised and lowered at the touch of a button while a low-hung second sink allows Matthew to wheel up to it. All the bathrooms are universally designed; Matthew’s features a harness that helps him get in and out of the walk-in tub on his own. Down the hall from his bedroom, an indoor resistance pool with an underwater treadmill beckons.
The home consists of four volumes. The center one, housing the public spaces, is protected by cedar planks that provide a rain screen about two inches away from the exterior walls. “It’s a shade structure that creates a cooler pocket of air,” Coplen explains. Two flanking volumes are clad in white HardiPlank—one housing the bedrooms and garage are topped with a living roof, while the other contains guest bedrooms. In the back of the property, a three-story tower offers a quiet, meditative space with dramatic views.
In the tower, a chair lift designed by Versicor—an engineering firm run by Coplen’s sister—calibrates weight and creates resistance to match the user’s capability. “Matthew can pull himself to the top or just use it as an elevator,” Slattery explains.
Outside, sustainable features abound. A concrete wall, created with a single pour, encloses one side of the house. It extends along the driveway in front and wraps around the tower in back. A “green screen” covers the garage in climbing vines. Solar and geothermal systems and robust insulation ensure energy efficiency. A previous driveway absorbs runoff, and the landscape, designed by Betsy Boykin, highlights non-invasive species. In back, a patio slopes to a meadow of wildflowers.
Bisecting the green roof, a recycled-rubber path connects the upper floor of the tower and the loft, overlooking the home’s main living area. The loft was designed for Peter, who recently graduated from college. “The house had to be for Matthew,” says Slattery. “But the loft gave Peter one space that was his.”
Inspired by Matthew’s progress, Slattery, who recently remarried, launched Finding a New Normal (findinganewnormal.com) in 2014. The foundation raises money for people who need universal accessibility for loved ones at home; John Coplen sits on the board. “My long-term goal is to surround families in crisis with the resources they need,” Slattery says. “Not everyone is as lucky as I was.”
Photographer Rachel Sale splits her time between Washington, DC, and Los Angeles.
ARCHITECTURE & INTERIOR DESIGN: JOHN COPLEN, ADAM BRIDGE, AIA, and JOHN SAGE, AIA, Alter Urban Design Collaborative, Washington, DC. CONTRACTOR: J Paul Builders, Stevenson, Maryland. INCLUSIVE DESIGN CONSULTANT: INGRID M. KANICS, OTR/L, Kanics Inclusive Design Services, LLC, New Castle, Pennsylvania. LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE: BETSY BOYKIN, ASLA, LEED AP, Core Studio Design, Baltimore, Maryland. LANDSCAPE INSTALLATION: Maxalea, Inc., Baltimore, Maryland.