The Accessible Life

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ARCHITECTURAL AWARENESS: BUILDING MCMILLAN HOUSE

At the time of my injury I was living in a 1,200sf loft with 13‘ ceilings. It was literally 30’ deep and 40’ wide. The entire south wall was comprised of 10’ windows. I had finished out the interior with hardwood floors and a raised bedroom area. At the time, the loft was without a doubt the most significant thing I had ever done. The two most relevant aspects of the loft I wanted to replicate in my new home were its open floor plan and its abundance of natural light.

The immediate adaptation of the loft to my injury was to move the bed down from the raised bedroom and replace the tub with a roll-in shower. This solved a couple of obvious problems right off the bat. These were stop-gap measures which were simple but effective. The kitchen was virtually inaccessible, as there was no way I could get my knees under any counter or sink. Likewise, the shelves were out of reach and entirely off-limits to me. Due to the limited space of a loft, the washer and dryer were vertically stacked units, out of reach and entirely off-limits to me.

Given the physical barriers of the loft, I was entirely dependent on my wife for putting the groceries away, preparing my meals, processing my laundry, etc. Additionally, the loft building had been erected in 1925 and was entirely inaccessible without taking the elevator down to the basement, where I could get in my car and drive up from the basement and out of the building.

So you might ask yourself, what was the attraction of the loft? Why stay there? While there were many negative attributes to the loft there were many positives attributes as well. We all have to make compromises so, for me, the positives outweighed the negatives. Not so with my wife. I had begun to adapt and accept a status quo that was unacceptable. She had not. She wanted to cut our losses and move to another environment — one without barriers to my independence.

As the result of my injury, I’d suffered a fair amount of loss — physically and emotionally. I sold the rest of my motorcycles, my two bicycles, my car with a stick shift, my golf clubs, etc. My mind felt under assault. What were they going to come and take next week? I had an irrational bond with my loft and was unwilling to relinquish control over it. When so much of what once defined us has been stripped away from us and so much that’s foreign been foisted upon us, it’s easy to understand how we might hunker down and resist more change, more uncertainty.

I’d literally heard my wife say she didn’t like having our bedroom in the living room. But again, compromises had to be made. For the time being, that was a compromise I could live with. It wasn’t until an architect friend came to visit and consult with us on how we might further adapt the loft for accessibility that I finally “heard” what my wife was telling me. The architect’s comment was, “Architecture is supposed to work for you. Beautiful as this may be, this no longer works for you.” I heard that.

One truism I try to never lose sight of is: “I can’t see my blind spots when I’m looking through my blind spots.” When assessing your constraints and opportunities, I encourage you to seek advice and counsel of others. Most of all I’d ask that you reevaluate your givens. Don’t assume the status quo is acceptable or inevitable. There’s always room for improvement. Sometimes the biggest impediment to removing a barrier or solving a problem is that we’ve accepted the status quo. I know of what I speak. I had accepted the status quo compromise of our bedroom in the middle of our loft. It sounds ridiculous now but, at the time, it seemed like an acceptable thing to do.

In bringing about change, step one is awareness. I encourage you to remain vigilant about keeping your awareness keen and seeking solutions from all quarters. I would never have embarked on building McMillan House had I continued to accept the status quo. The change I was seeking was how to make my loft more accessible. The solution I arrived at was designing, then constructing, McMillan House. I’m not special or gifted, I’m just paralyzed and was willing to look outside myself for solutions. What I found were “Simple solutions for complex problems.”

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