From fundamental design concepts―such as an open floor plan and wider doorways―to small tweaks, using easy-to-open door levers instead of traditional doorknobs, Universal Design is based on home building ideas that make life more comfortable for people of all ages and abilities. It's a primary feature of the eighth annual Cooking Light FitHouse, located 20 miles south of Portland, Oregon, in the suburb of Wilsonville in the Arbor at Villebois neighborhood. "Universal Design goes hand-in-hand with the green philosophy that has been a staple of Cooking Light idea houses because you can build one home that will work for your family for a lifetime," says Jennifer Usselman, owner of Intersect Design and the home's interior designer.
The FitHouse was designed to reflect its Pacific Northwest setting, including elements of Arts and Crafts–style design, an era where architecture and furniture makers embraced simple lines, beauty of natural materials, and high-quality building techniques.
Several beams of salvaged Douglas fir―Oregon's state tree―are used as focal points above the exterior entry, in the kitchen as a support post, and as the mantel for the fireplace. "It has a beautiful, clean, more contemporary-styled grain and warm color tone while still keeping the sense of place," Usselman says.
The well-designed accessibility of the home begins from the front sidewalk. "Instead of traditional steps leading up to the home, we opted for a gradually sloping entry for easier access―for wheelchairs, strollers, or anyone who may be entering the home," Usselman says.
From the outside in
Mother Nature is never far away thanks to green landscaping and building. The FitHouse maximizes outdoor enjoyment with an herb garden―just steps from the kitchen on the patio―that provides quick access to fresh ingredients, while a large covered courtyard off the great room features a gathering spot, grilling station, and an outdoor fire pit. The landscaping incorporates plants native to the area that are suited to the climate and therefore require less maintenance.
The green theme continues indoors with Earth-friendly features including Energy Star appliances, water-saving plumbing fixtures, and special construction measures, such as extra seals around plumbing and electrical entry points to help increase energy efficiency.
Kitchen and breakfast room
Natural elements including stone, wood, and glass are used throughout the home whenever possible. "I selected earthy colors and textures that let the materials' inherently beautiful qualities shine through," Usselman says. The kitchen features ample storage space with easily accessible cabinets, drawers, and open shelving in the adjoining large walk-in pantry. By arranging the sink, cooktop, and refrigerator within steps of one another, Usselman formed a work triangle that makes meal preparation quicker and easier.
The adjacent breakfast room features seating for six, more built-in storage, and easy access to the laundry room, patio herb garden, and garage. To further improve the air quality of this and all rooms in the house, an energy-efficient Trane Clean Effects cooling and heating system reduces household dust and filters up to 99 percent of potential allergens.
How we use Universal Design
• Dishwasher drawers, such as these from KitchenAid, are ideal for frequent or small loads. Usselman decided to trade a traditional single unit for two stacked drawers. "A typical dishwasher with a single, large door requires the user to bend down to load and unload," she says. "This way, you can run smaller loads and access clean dishes with less bending."
• The large kitchen island serves as a focal point. Its multi-height countertops provide workspace, and additional seating to more easily―and comfortably―assist with tasks.
• Cabinet doors beneath the island sink and in the laundry room open and slide back to provide knee space for residents in a wheelchair.
Warm, natural colors characterize the furnishings, walls, area rugs, and accessories in each of the home's primary gathering areas. "We live in an unfussy manner in the Pacific Northwest, so a comfortable, livable interior is the key to a beautifully designed home," says Todd Dewey Jantz, co-owner of JD Madison Home Furnishings, who supplied many items of furniture and accessories. Heavily textured fabrics and small splashes of color serve as an homage to the natural beauty outside. "I selected pieces that combine the elements of the Northwest: strong ties with nature, respect for the past, and an uncluttered global aesthetic," says artist Susan Lura, who created the multiple paintings and collages seen throughout the home.
Great room and dining room
Usselman added a bench with built-in storage cabinets to the dining room to help keep entertaining items organized. "It also saves cleaning time under portable furnishing and requires less bending," she says.
By selecting a variety of soft fabrics and textures, Usselman turned the main bedroom into an escape that engages the senses. Locating the master bedroom away from the main hub of the home helps create a corner of calm. The room's fabric choices―muted in tone and touch―further add to the feeling of serenity. Ample windows and a door that opens to the courtyard connect the space to the outdoors but also provide filtered light via natural bamboo shades. "This home takes full advantage of one of the most abundant of resources: sunlight. Everywhere you look, you have natural light coming into the home," Usselman says. "This helps reduce dependency on alternative interior lighting, and saves energy."
The suite's bathroom features neat, white subway tile for a clean look, and a wide ledge around the tub makes entering and exiting easier for people of all abilities. A dual-sided fireplace connects the bedroom to the bath, combining with a radiant heated floor from Uponor that provides comforting warmth.
How we use Universal Design
• Reconsider where you locate electrical switches and outlets. Placing switches 40 inches and outlets 27 inches above the floor requires less bending and makes them easier to reach.
• Residents with limited mobility appreciate even flooring surfaces, such as the dent-resistant Armstrong hardwood floors featured throughout the first floor.
• We installed Jeld-Wen's MagLock windows, which open smoothly with one hand and automatically lock when closed.
• Open shelving, as shown in the bathroom, provides ready access to towels.
• Cabinets and drawers have C- or D-shaped handles, which require less hand movement than smaller knobs.
Universal Design suite
This space highlights design elements that enhance accessibility. "More people are planning homes that they can live in for as long as possible, and using the principles of Universal Design gives them confidence that they can do so without major modifications," says Brad Hosmar, director of product development for Arbor Custom Homes, the builder for this year's FitHouse. Converting the home's planned office space into a Universal Design–themed, independent living area allows the homeowner to create accessible space for a family member with limited mobility.
"When you use beautiful materials in combination with accessible design ideas, they work together seamlessly and you don't even notice the Universal Design aspects, just that the room feels and functions better than a typical environment," Usselman says. "The concepts are about making life easier for everyone in a home as beautiful as it is functional."
How we use Universal Design
• Adding a built-in seat to the curbless shower makes bathing safer for residents who may need assistance and places commonly used items within reach.
• The bathroom was redesigned to provide a 60-inch diameter turning space for wheelchairs. Similar considerations were made in the furniture layout of the bedroom.
• A handheld showerhead is easier to use than the traditional wall-mounted variety.
• Minor changes―such as switching doorknobs and faucets for lever-controlled options―make operating easier.
Usselman created the home's upstairs landing as a quiet, relaxing space lined with built-in bookcases and a comfortable reading chaise. "Long before it was built, I knew this would be my favorite spot," Usselman says. "With our climate, it feels so great to have a place where rainy days can be enjoyed with a good book and a cup of coffee or a nap."