How to Pair Luxury With Access
Creative design for the disabled community shouldn’t just stop at entry point access. It can seep into every aspect of a home—and be luxurious, too. From open floor concepts to roll-in showers and indoor elevators, luxury home design can be inclusive with just a bit of forethought, say designers Alexa Vaughn, Deaf landscape designer and accessibility specialist at the Los Angeles-based MIG, and Dala Al-Fuwaires, principal designer at House of Form in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Yet, the disabled community has fought long and hard to get even the bare minimum when it comes to accessible designs. But with about 61 million adults in the United States living with a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), accessibility matters.
It’s time to go beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards—all it takes to mix adaptive design and luxury is a little planning and creativity.
How Designers Can Aim for Accessible Design
The ADA, which became law in 1990, led to accessibility in public spaces (it only covers public accommodations and access to common areas in residential developments). “California and some other states go a small step beyond the ADA Standards for Accessible Design, but still, it’s not enough,” says Vaughn. “These documents focus on the bare minimums needed by wheelchair users and blind/low vision people and don’t account for much variance. Going beyond the ADA entails treating the ADA standards and any state access codes as the bare minimum to build upon, creatively expanding our thinking with universal design principles.”
Normalizing modern design for accessibility is simply a matter of placing “yourself in the shoes of a differently-abled or aging-in-place individual,” says Al-Fuwaires. She encourages interior designers and architects to “think through the day-to-day use of the entire home, starting at the front door. Is it easy to come and go through the path leading up to the front door? Are door handles easy to maneuver? Are countertops at an appropriate height? Is there clear knee space under sinks? Is the microwave accessible? Are there ramps and rails that assist in navigating from space to space?” If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then it is time to revise the design plans.
Incorporating people with disabilities into the design process is also essential to understand the factors needed to cater to them. Vaughn advises consulting with various stakeholders with different abilities before launching into building.
“Members of the disabled community are actually pros at tinkering with our own environments to make them fit our bodies and our needs,” says Vaughn. “This is something we’ve been doing forever because the built environment is not built with us in mind.”
How to Go Beyond ADA for Luxury Design in a Home
A designer should aim for innovative spatial design that considers texture, lighting, color scheme, furniture, and fixture placement, in addition to mobility. “All accessibility needs can be approached as an aesthetic architectural solution that adds to the level of detail throughout the home versus an impediment,” explains Al-Fuwaires. Here’s how.
Think grab rails that flow with the design of the home, wide and sliding doors, modern designs integrated with curbless showers in the bathroom, and bespoke cabinets in kitchens. Incorporating tweaks like these throughout the house can easily elevate the design.
An open floor plan is a popular luxurious design trend worth incorporating. Along with being aesthetically pleasing, open floor concepts are also wheelchair-friendly and helpful for those who can’t hear. “Openness between top and bottom floors or between indoor and outdoor spaces is important, because people can look to see each other and communicate,” explains Vaughn. What’s more, open floor space allows for more natural lighting, which Vaughn says “ensures people are easy to see and communicate with. Dark spaces may cause glare and eye strain.”
Instead of (or in addition to) spiral or floating staircases, designers can add elevators, which typically cost upwards of $25,000 depending on the type and installation requirements. Even in small spaces, a shaftless, vacuum, or hydraulic elevator can also improve quality of life.
Bathrooms and kitchens need sufficient turning space for wheelchairs. Toilet and sink height and depth can ease access and improve use. Certain sinks (such as this washbasin from Villeroy Boch) allow for wheelchair users to access the sink easily, while adding sleek built-in grab rails that double as a place to hang hand towels. Roll-in or barrier-free showers are curbless, designed to make getting in and out easier for wheelchair users. The floor of the roll-in shower is level with the bathroom floor, eliminating the step which is often difficult to navigate.
Home alarms available from Blink, Ring, and Nest are a great replacement for a traditional doorbell. These devices provide auditory notifications, as well as visual ones like flashing lights and sensory ones like vibration.
For wheelchair users, ground-floor kitchens should have a lowered sink, oven, and stovetop. Cabinets and drawers can be below countertops rather than elevated. If done with high-end finishes, such as bespoke cabinetry, high quality backsplashes, and luxurious finishes, these tweaks are easily accomplished without sacrificing quality or style.
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Nafeesah Allen, Ph.D. is a multi-lingual author, independent researcher, editor, and contributing writer for various national online publications. She frequently covers personal finance, family, culture, real estate, and discrimination. She also leads BlackHistoryBookshelf.com, a book review website that highlights global Black histories organized by language, theme, and country. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @theblaxpat.