Sunrise Homes

Circa 1995

When Las Vegas home builder Craig Johnson was at the University of Maryland, he took a class in rehabilitation therapy. To get the full impact and feeling of what a physically disabled person experiences, he navigated the campus for a month in a wheelchair.

“I’ve never forgotten the obstacles a disabled person faces,” recalls Johnson. “At least at a college, there were some modifications mandated by law. But even then it bothered me that it must be a tremendous hassle-and expense-to be in a wheel chair at home.”

That memory was one of the driving forces that propelled Johnson Communities Nevada division to design, build and furnish what it calls its “Sunrise Home” at its Horizon View community in Henderson, a Las Vegas suburb. The three-bedroom, three-bathroom, fully-accessible 2,160 square-foot home is believed to be the first model or display house tailored to the special needs of disabled people..

Johnson is quick to point out that focusing on this market is a sound business decision. “There are 43 million disabled Americans who want style, excitement, comfort and functionality in a new home.” he notes, “But the homebuilding industry has largely ignored their special requirements, leaving it to custom homebuilders to build turn-key houses one at a time, and that’s expensive.”

Another alternative has been to hire a contractor and modify a new home to accommodate the buyer’s disabilities. “Design and aesthetics are rarely factored in on a modification, so the result was a patchwork job that had an almost institutional feeling,” says Johnson, “That can be pretty depressing.”

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As part of a nine-month market research effort. Johnson connected with Carole Eichen. ASID, an award-winning interior designer in Orange County, Calif. He says Eichen shared his vision of an exciting, inviting yet practical model home.

“Other than logistical considerations and special options, this home would not stand out as (being) aimed at the physically-challenged buyer,” explains Eichen, president of Carole Eichen Interiors, a firm that designs and furnishes model homes around the world.

Johnson, Eichen and Denver architect Arlo Braun teamed up before the blueprints were drawn. “Our goals were subtlety, sensibility and flexibility,” says Johnson. “For instance, Carole designed room set tings for a person who might have a home-based business or who could telecommute to a large company via PC, modem, fax or on-line. I wanted the home to have two master bed rooms in case a family suddenly found that an elderly parent needed to move in.” Braun’s architectural design innovations include tiered gallery walls and spacious rooms normally found in more expensive homes. Still, the emphasis is clearly on the hearing-impaired, sight- impaired or wheelchair-confined individual.

After the Sunrise Home was built, but before the grand opening. Craig Johnson wanted to make sure he met the needs of his target market. He commissioned Doug Connors, an author and educator who is also a quadriplegic, to critique the home and suggest any changes to make it even more friendly to the disabled homeowner. Says Johnson, “Doug, who has writ ten The Challenged Traveler’s Guide to Las Vegas, made a dozen recommendations and we implemented each one.”

Connors was surprised: “We went through the home and when I said ‘Cover the pipes under the sink so I don’t bang my knees.” he said Let’s do it.’ I asked for a full-sized mirror and Craig said ‘Fine.””

Johnson also retained Las Vegas clinical social worker Marsha Slotten, MSW, MBA and Lee Rich, MBA, to walk through the home. before it was completed. Their three- page list of suggestions were also incorporated. Among the proposed changes: use levers for door handles; install grab handles inside and out on bathroom pocket doors and use a small, plastic threshold at the end of the of the shower area to contain water. “Craig Johnson is at the cutting edge of where housing is going,” says Slotten, who practices at Green Valley Counselling in Henderson, “Smart builders are going to follow him because by the year 2010, half the population will be over 65 and that sort of hits you between the eyes.

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The first couple to buy a Sunrise Home had been house hunting in Las Vegas for two years, long before the Sunrise Home was built. Walter LeVasseur and his then-fiancée. Diana Silver, figured it would be a cakewalk to find their dream home because new-home communities were popping up throughout the Vegas Valley to house Southern Nevada’s booming population. But Walter had special needs.

The 30-year-old CAD (computer-aided drafting) specialist has been in an electric wheelchair since 1981, when a diving accident in a swimming pool left him a quadriplegic “We went to 20 or 30 housing developments and the salespeople said they had to check with the general manager to see if they could adapt the house to accommodate me,” says LeVasseur. “But no one could talk in specifics or tell us what it would cost.” Adds Diana. “We had a hard time getting information about handicapped modifications. The sales people weren’t too enthused. We just didn’t have confidence that the modifications would be done correctly,”

Ironically, a salesman for another homebuilder directed the couple to Johnson Communities’ Sunrise Home. “It was music to our ears,” says LeVasseur, “We were beginning to think our only alternative was to build our own custom home and that would have been extremely expensive. So when we heard the Sunrise Home had a roll-in shower, we knew they knew what they were talking about.” The couple bought the home, got married, honeymooned in Disney World and returned to set up housekeeping.

Diana says the house is liberating for Walter, noting, “When Walt saw the garage door opener was inside the home, that meant freedom for him and helped me. For the first time in his life, he can open the door for me and I can bring in the groceries.”

The extra-wide hallways and doors make it convenient for LeVasseur to negotiate his wheel chair around the house without bumping into door jambs and walls. Says his wife, “It’s nice to be able to pass each other in the hall without one of us having to back out of the way or squeeze by.” Outside, the walkway to the front door is a foot wider than normal. “I can go around. the corner without rolling off into the grass.” says Walter, “Being a quad, it just makes it so much easier to live.”

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The LeVasseurs added a number of features, including a front door handle that can also throw a dead bolt lock with one hand motion, a four-sided fireplace that can be lit by remote control, lowered thermostats and light switches, roll-under sinks and kitchen counters, roll-out shelves and a pull-out cutting board.

Surprisingly, the Sunrise Home caught the attention of the so-called “housing industry bible”. Professional Builder magazine which named it House of the Month in July, 1994. Johnson was saluted by the magazine as a risk-taker for his trailblazing efforts. Johnson Communities built a second Sunrise. Home in Golden, Colorado, a Denver suburb, and the first buyer was Jack Jorgenson, a former line man the St. Louis Cardinals who has had hip replacement surgery.

Today, Johnson is thinking of renaming the Sunrise Home the “Freedom Home.” “Owners,” he says, “tell us their new freedom of movement is the real appeal. Sure, it looks lovely but livability, not beauty, is why you buy a home.”

Chris Barnett

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