Photos: Jason Dickens

For those looking for a glimpse into housing’s future, the industry has a new oracle in the Universal Design Living Laboratory (UDLL)—a new demonstration home in Columbus, Ohio, that combines universal design, energy efficiency, and healthy building.

The project, started in 2003, is the result of an accident when one of its owners, Rosemarie Rossetti, was hit by a falling tree limb while on a bike ride. The impact left her paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair. After weeks of treatment, she returned to her "two-story dream home" only to find it unusable. The house "was a major source of frustration, limiting my mobility, independence, safety, and comfort," Rossetti writes on the UDLL website, referencing how she could not access either the second floor or basement, reach food in cabinets, or easily operate her top-loading washing machine. "When I bring home groceries, I have to carry the bags in my mouth while I maneuver down the walk and up the lift," she writes.

Eventually, both Rossetti and her husband, Mark Leder, realized their home would never fit the bill and went in search of a new one. But when they were unable to find a builder in their market that offered home plans that could fully accommodate Rossetti’s needs, they decided to do it themselves. Almost nine years later, the UDLL—which will be open to builders and the public as an idea house—is finally nearing completion.

While not every buyer will need a home that is completely wheelchair accessible, the project’s story is illustrative of the industry’s current lack of options for the large and growing segment of the population that requires homes accessible to those with mobility issues. And at a time when consumers’ concerns about the energy-efficiency, green, and healthy aspects of their homes are growing, the UDLL’s plan is prescient.

When finished, the 3,500-square-foot, ranch-style home will not only be completely wheelchair accessible, but also certified under LEED, Energy Star, the National Green Building Program, Livable Design, and life-flex.

Filtration systems boost the home’s air and water quality. No carpeting is included in the home, which helps both with wheelchair accessibility and air quality by reducing the use of materials that shelter mildew and allergens. A central vacuum systems helps to eliminate dust inside, and "everything that was brought into the house was evaluated for hazardous VOCs," Rossetti says.

Much of the home’s plan—which was designed by Patrick Manley, president of Manley Architecture Group, and enhanced by interior designer Mary Jo Peterson in the kitchen, bathrooms, closets, and pantry—hinges on planning for adaptations that may be needed down the road, such as reinforced ceilings and walls for lifts and grab bars.

One particularly challenging aspect, Rossetti says, has been finding products that meet the project’s high standards for both accessibility and energy efficiency while also keeping up aesthetics. When shopping for a side-by-side refrigerator with accessible features, for example, she found a product that fit her needs perfectly, only to discover that it wasn’t Energy Star certified, and had to go with another brand. The couple also wanted an adjustable ironing board that could accommodate both Leder—who stands more than 6 feet tall—and Rossetti. When they approached a manufacturer, "they said ‘now that’s a great idea,’" Rossetti says. "They sent us a prototype, and we sent back revisions, and now the product is available on their website, listed as a universal design product. They sent us the first one."

But perhaps more than anything, the concept home acts as an exemplification of the many features a growing number of home buyers are looking for in a home. "It all makes sense," says Rossetti, speaking of the combination of accessible, green, and healthy building. "They all go together. As long as we’re building a house, of course we would like it to be healthy. We’re very into saving money. And we’re building a house that will be easy to live in and to maintain."

Claire Easley is a senior editor at Builder.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Columbus, OH, Greenville, SC.