When a septuagenarian couple approached Washington, D.C.–based KUBE Architecture about renovating their three-story, 100-year-old Capitol Hill rowhouse, they made the program considerably more difficult when they announced they wanted the narrow house to serve them as they aged.
Principal Janet Bloomberg embraced the challenge by carefully considering their future needs through the principles of universal design. She based her process on Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines but also relied on common-sense solutions customized to her clients.
The width necessary to accommodate a wheelchair—36 inches—became the controlling dimension for the redesign. Continuous open space on the first floor breaks down the sense of narrowness that usually constricts a rowhouse, connecting a media room at the front to an ample kitchen and living area that extends into the garden at the rear. These spaces are separated by a central core that conceals an elevator, powder room, pantry, and stair to the basement—while maintaining a bearing wall from the existing construction.
“The kitchen is easy to get in and out of,” Bloomberg explains. Its U-shaped island is the centerpiece of the main living areas. Universal design dictated no overhead cabinets, which also aids in the sense of openness. Undercounter cabinets open to both the inside and outside of the U, doubling storage space.
The continuity between interior and exterior is emphasized with a custom steel-framed, glass-top table bisected by the sliding glass doors. When the doors are fully deployed, it creates a 14-foot opening between garden and house. An Italian floor tile runs continuously from inside to out, varying only in its texture between the two.
The second floor master suite includes a bath that follows the same principles as the kitchen, with a 9-foot-long vanity and roll-in shower that can be accessed via wheelchair. “It’s easy to get into, but tight,” Bloomberg says. She also designed custom grab bars for the space, preferring to avoid the institutional look of stock fixtures. Just three steps lower from the bedroom is a lounge that overlooks the living/dining room and garden. It has a small sleeping nook that doubles as a guest bedroom.
With an eye to the future, Bloomberg and her clients decided to include a third floor bedroom that can be used as living quarters for a health aide or nurse, should the clients require one.
The couple likes black and white and enjoys cooking and eating at home, which inspired the architects to adopt the “Salt + Pepper House” moniker for the project. Despite the predominantly monotone palette, there’s considerable use of varying textures and occasional splashes of color. “It feels colorful,” Bloomberg says. “A little goes a long way.”
The same common sense approach that informs the color and material palettes applies to the thoughtful, inventive resolution of the client’s changing accessibility needs, proving that bespoke solutions sometimes are a better choice than code requirements. “As long as it will work, you don’t have to satisfy ADA,” Bloomberg notes.