A Homebuilder’s Perspective on Accessible Home Design

By: Kelly Martin, M.S., NCIDQ, IDEC, ASID, IIDA, CD, LEED AP

On a warm and bright afternoon, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Allen Monk, owner of Michael Allen Homes. Michael has degrees from both the University of Alabama (Master of Business Administration) and Auburn University (Mechanical Engineering) and is known around Auburn for his ability to build custom high-quality homes with style and grace that stand the test of time. My reason for contacting Michael for this interview was to talk about the accessible homes he has built in The Legacy, a 55+ active adult community in Auburn.  However, the interview revealed to me that Michael also applies accessible home design principles, in one form or another, in all the homes he builds. With the growing need for accessible homes in the United States, I was curious to talk to Michael about his entry into the market of accessible homes.

Michael answered the door with a friendly smile and welcomed me into his new office, which was designed with many of the characteristics that appear in his custom homes: wide hallways, high ceilings, ample natural light, a smart floor plan and beautiful views of nature. He told me about his journey to building homes in the upper-end market that focus on accessibility. Michael’s first introduction to accessible design began with a custom home he built for an individual who had been in a traumatic car accident resulting in permanent physical and cognitive limitations.  Michael worked with an ADA consultant to review the plans and guide him in meeting specific requirements. This was his first exposure to the idea of accessible design that has had a lasting influence in his building philosophy. Michael has also built homes that have incorporated special features such as outdoor therapy pools with elongated beach entries and handrails to enable physical therapy to occur close to home. He is now a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS), a credential he recommends to other builders and designers as a good introduction to accessible design as “it gives you an idea of building homes for people with a range of abilities and limitations.”

According to Michael, “an accessible home is just a well-planned functional home.” He likes to incorporate some accessible features into all his homes because “it is just appreciated.” He has found that clients appreciate the features such as wide hallways, accessible height appliances and outlets, zero-entry doors, low thresholds, lever style doors, the avoidance of trip hazards and the presence of an abundance of windows funneling natural light throughout the home. He smiled a bit and said that accessible design features, when incorporated from the start, don’t stand out.  They are just part of good design. With a grin, Michael noted that “no one ever walks into a home and says, ‘I don’t like these wide doors or hallways.’” When carrying out major tasks like moving furniture or going about everyday activities, his clients appreciate the accessible design features and the value the design creates in their lives. “Accessibility represents value for my clients and people will pay for and appreciate value. Accessible home design is just good design, good building and good construction. For an accessible home that is well-designed and well-built, it shouldn’t be obvious that it is accessible.”

While Michael does strive to incorporate accessible design features where feasible, he also believes that some features may be best incorporated by building in components now that will help to streamline future modifications. Planning this capacity for the home to be easily modified in the future can also add value for the client. For example, “grab bars and hop-ups may not be necessary now, but we can add blocking when building the home so that they can be added later when needed. Stacking closets to allow for a future elevator can also be a good thing. In-law suites in a basement are popular among a lot of buyers who are thinking about aging parents moving in but how will they get up the stairs in years to come? They’re not cheap but elevators are less expensive than you would think.” The parents of one family he worked with actually paid for the installation of an elevator so that it would be there for them in the future.

One of the accessible features Michael appreciates most and includes in all of the homes he builds is ample lighting through a combination of both natural and artificial means. He noted that lighting is often very overlooked in the function of a home when considering other mobility issues but “vision can also be a limiting physical ability. Everyone appreciates good lighting, but it’s super needed as you get older. Having layers and choices in lighting is a responsible forethought for your client.” Another piece of advice for designers and builders seeking to incorporate accessible design features in custom homes revolves around space management.  As Michael noted, “one of the things most overlooked is that while the master bedroom and bathroom are large and accessible, often the guest bedrooms and bathrooms are not. Those can be hard things to modify later.”  Planning for accessible design features from the start, like ample space for guests or in-laws with physical limitations, can be beneficial for “most of what you do – the cost is negligible. It’s just making sure you design with accessibility in mind.”  Regarding grading lots, he noted that “at The Legacy they encounter elevation changes across the property but, with intentional grading, can still incorporate one or two zero-step entry points into each home. It’s a balance between the natural terrain of the land and what you need it to be. The aesthetics and functionality of it need to be balanced.”

Lastly, in a true testament to his success in the upper-end custom home building market, Michael adheres to the idea that the individual functional needs of the client should be considered above all. “Accessibility and functionality should not be confused. For one client, their functionality may be wide-cased openings and daylight.  However, another person’s functionality may be individual rooms and the ability to close them creating pockets of privacy. It’s important, when given the opportunity, to meet specific client needs, both emotional and physical.”

 

Kelly Martin is an Interior Design Lecturer at Auburn University whose passion for teaching and research centers on the ability of interior design to support human health and wellbeing in an equitable way. Contact Kelly at [email protected]