When Ronald Knecht began house hunting two years ago, he had a promise to keep. Before his wife passed away from a battle with cancer, she had asked him to move to Nokesville, Va., to be close to their daughter so that the two could look after each other. But at 73 years old and having just watched his wife go from healthy to a walker to a wheelchair, he wasn’t looking for just anything.
What he found was a whole lot of old mansions, "99% of which were junk," he says. With too many stairs and maintenance issues that would have been unthinkable. Beyond that, he was looking for efficiency. "The Realtors wanted to show you the granite in the kitchen. I wanted to go to the basement, and when you’re looking at daylight through the band boards, there’s no way you can possibly heat that house."
After months of searching, Knecht decided to have one built. Working with Golden Rule Builders, a local green builder that had experience with universal design, Knecht spent the next few months extensively researching accessible design. Together, what he and Golden Rule came up with is the equivalent of a super-house. Ultra efficient, universally designed to a T, and virtually maintenance free, evidence of careful research and planning is everywhere.
Driving in, the garage is extra wide, with a 9-foot door to accommodate lift-equipped vehicles. The bumped-out walls provide enough space on either side for someone in a wheelchair to get out comfortably. "That was something my wife always hated," Knecht says, "when I would have to make her get out in the rain and wheel her inside because the garage was too small."
Paths leading up to the home are 6-feet across, allowing enough room for a wheelchair and another person to approach the home side-by-side. At the front entry, the plan includes a small shelf for packages, so that it isn’t necessary to bend over to pick parcels up from the ground—one of the many features Knecht insists would be useful to anyone, whether or not they have full mobility. "Who wouldn’t want a shelf by the door when you’re coming home with groceries and kids and you got a purse and keys to deal with?"
And then there is the door itself. "A lot of builders will throw in a 32-inch door and call themselves universal design, but that’s useless if you can’t operate the door handle," says Anthony Palladino, building designer at Golden Rule Builders. Beyond using levered handles or specialized knobs, he says, a home’s design needs to include at least 18 inches of clear space on the pull side of the door to ensure that a wheelchair or a person on crutches can get up to the side of the door and make it through comfortably. "I was working with [a universal design specialist], and you wouldn't believe how many mothers call her saying that their kids with sports injuries can't get through the front door," Knecht says.
Inside, the entire kitchen is tailored with accessibility features that encourage mobility without looking institutional. Counters sit at 34 inches, with space underneath so they can be accessed from a seated position. Space is also cutout underneath the cooktop, which features knobs at the front of the unit covered by a panel that prevents children from accessing them. Kickspaces are 9 inches high and 6 inches deep, to accommodate wheelchairs. And all light switches, outlets, and thermostats sit at a 44-inch height.
Bathrooms are fitted with out-turning doors and low-in showers. Counters, set at 34 inches, have free space underneath to make them wheelchair accessible. To make up for the lack of undercounter cabinetry, each bathroom is fitted with a closet accessed through bi-fold doors.
In the bedrooms, closet bars can be set at multiple heights, not only to adjust for someone in a wheelchair, but also so that they can be made available to a child and then adjusted for height as the child grows.
And everywhere in the home, lighting was a top priority. "Shadows cause falls," Knecht says. So his plan meticulously eliminates them by flooding the home with natural light through windows and sun tunnels, including a sun tunnel in every shower. Path lights illuminate the hallway, and the kitchen is outfitted with undercounter lighting.
Often overlooked as an aspect of universal design, home maintenance was a big priority for Knecht, who not only wants to avoid having to deal with home upkeep as he ages, but also doesn’t want the home to be a bother for his daughter, who will take it over after he’s gone.
"Someone tried to talk me into a black shingled roof," he says. "They look good, but I said no because of all the heat they absorb. I wanted to use white shingles, but those only had a 30-year warranty. So what, in 30 years I’m dead and my daughter is 70 years old and has to worry about putting in a new roof? I don’t think so." Instead, the home is outfitted with a white metal roof with a 55-year guarantee.
The windows and doors are all done in maintenance-free fiberglass, and the home itself is clad in cement board, "so it will never rot," Knecht says.
While the home is 4,000 square feet, Knecht estimates that less than 200 of that was added because of universal design features. And while the home hits a higher price range, Palladino says that is due to the extra energy-efficiency features that are included, such as the geothermal system and top-of-the-line insulation. The universal design features, he says, are accessible at just about any price point. "When you compare the cost difference between a standard door and a 36-inch door, you’re talking a difference of $24."
Claire Easley is a senior editor at Builder.
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Greenville, SC.