Universal Design — How to Build Your Dream Home

Circa 2006

By all standards I had it all. I had been married for three years to a wonderful man, Mark Leder. We were living in a home we had built when we were first married. My two-year-old speaking, training and consulting business was doing well. Life was plump with promise! Then all of this changed on June 13, 1998.

During a bicycle ride on our wedding anniversary weekend, a three-and-a-half ton tree suddenly collapsed and came crashing down on top of me. Mark caught sight of the tree when it was halfway to the ground. He tried in vain to warn me. I lay on the trail unconscious as Mark and two others managed to leverage the tree just enough to get me out from under its hold. That’s when I woke up and asked Mark, “What happened?”

Soon I was taken by helicopter to the Grant Medical Center trauma unit in Columbus, Ohio. When I woke up in intensive care, Mark broke the news to me: “You have a spinal cord injury.” I had undergone four-and-ahalf hours of surgery to repair my broken back and neck, requiring a bone graft and insertion of two spinesupporting metal rods.

Five days after my injury, I was transported to Dodd Hall at The Ohio State University Medical Center for inpatient rehabilitation. I learned how to dress, get out of bed and roll around the building in a wheelchair. After spending five weeks in rehabilitation I was faced with another tough transition—going home.

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The dream home that Mark and I had built in 1995 had become more of a nightmare. When we built it, we expected to live there for an unlimited time. Now I was face to face with steps at the front porch that I couldn’t climb. Family and neighbors had to build a temporary ramp so Mark could get me into the house. Eventually, an electric lift was installed at the front door so I could get in and out on my own.

Once inside my home, I was faced with more obstacles. The stairs to the second story and basement made those areas inaccessible to me. Doors needed to be removed so I could enter the master bath and shower area. I couldn’t get into the bathtub without someone else’s assistance. The laundry room door was removed to allow me access. Kitchen wall cabinets were beyond my reach.

Eight years after my injury my frustration continues to mount as I tolerate these inaccessible conditions. I get angry doing the laundry as I bang my wheelchair into the washer, dryer and walls in the tight laundry room. The process of taking clothes out of the washer is prolonged since my washer has a lid at the top and I can’t reach down into the tub to remove the wet clothes. I must use a reacher to get clothes out, one sock at a time. I know a front loading washer will make this job a lot easier in my next house.

Rosemarie Rosetti using a reacher in her current home (top left) and planning her new universally designed home
Rosemarie Rosetti using a reacher in her current home (top left) and planning her new universally designed home

Since I am the cook of the family, I need access to my appliances, pantry and cabinets. It is difficult reaching items out of my freezer, since it is located on top of the refrigeration compartment. The bottom-hinged oven does not allow me safe access as I remove a baked chicken from the oven. The items in the top of my pantry often fall on my head when I try pulling them out with the reacher, so I have learned to store only lightweight items like crackers and cereals on the top shelf. In the wall cabinets, I can reach items only on the bottom shelf, so I rely upon Mark to get items off the upper shelves. Since my injury, Mark and I have been planning to build a home that would better accommodate both of us—a process that has taken longer than we originally intended and has taught us a lot about the importance of finding the right resources.

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I first became aware of universal design housing while reading a magazine about a woman who used a wheelchair and had designed her kitchen so she could roll under her sink and cooktop. Encouraged by this magazine article, I devoted my time to research, making trips to the library, searching the Internet, speaking with others who used wheelchairs and visiting with our local independent living center director. As I learned more about universal design, I came to understand that it is more than just a kitchen design—it is for the entire house and landscape, and it not a design method just for people with disabilities. Universal design frames construction of products, places and services so they can benefit the widest possible range of people in the widest range of situations without the need for special or separate design. The more that homes and other buildings are designed from the beginning with use by everyone in mind, the more individuals they will work for without expensive redesign and renovation.

Mark and I visited homes built by people who used wheelchairs and took photos and extensive notes on which features limited accessibility for the owners and which features worked well. After months of information collection, Mark began to sketch out a floor plan for our new house.


The home-building process began with choosing a location. We wanted to live in metropolitan Columbus, Ohio, so we began to drive around looking for the ideal location. We found a new subdivision where two builders had several lots available. However, we became discouraged because each builder had only one ranchstyle floor plan to offer.

Our needs analysis of space within the home revealed these floor plans were not adequate for us. Our current home is 2,200 square feet. Mark and I each have an office in our home. The new home needed to be significantly larger to accommodate wider hallways and larger bathrooms, kitchen, master closet, laundry and home offices.

Based on referrals, we choose C.V. Perry as our builder and put a deposit on a lot. Our builder told us we could modify his existing floor plan by erasing all interior walls and redrawing a new floor plan within the original house footprint. As Mark and I attempted to modify the plan, it quickly became apparent that the necessary adaptations were too numerous, and we began to search for an architect. We contacted our friends and our local independent living center, Ohio Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation, for architect recommendations.

Our builder also recommended an architect. When I asked this architect, “How would you approach the design of the kitchen for our universal design home?” he answered, “I would let the cabinet company lay out the floor plan.” I immediately knew that if he was going to delegate the entire kitchen design to the cabinet company, this architect was not experienced.

A second recommended architect sent his resume and a summary of the projects he had completed. I asked for his references and called three of them. One of them, a woman who used a wheelchair had recently hired him to remodel her bathroom, indicated she was still not able to reach any of the electrical outlets and would not recommend him.

A third architect was located out of state, making communication difficult and costly. It became obvious that our project would require face-to-face conferences. We interviewed a woman who had designed her own home using universal design features, but she was not an architect. We realized that our project would need an architect to officially stamp any final plans. Our search for a registered architect continued.

A colleague recommended architect Patrick Manley, RA, AIAA. Manley came to our home with his construction manager and feng shui design consultant, Cathy Van Volkenburg. He brought us his reference list and described previous projects where he worked on ADA-compliant housing projects, as well as residential universal design. I called his three references and got glowing reviews! We had our man!

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In the next few months, we held several meetings with Manley in which we tried to shoehorn our space needs into the builder’s existing house footprint. We realized we were spinning our wheels. The only logical solution would be to create a unique floor plan from scratch.

We monitored the square footage to keep the costs lower and designed from the inside out. That is, first we positioned the rooms in relation to each other. Then we sized each room based on our furniture placement and pathways of travel for my wheelchair. We considered point of use when locating appliances in the rooms and rooms within the house. Finally, we detailed the exterior shell of the home. Throughout the process, we looked for space wasters like a foyer or hallway that was too large.

The new house will have 3,500 square feet of space on the main floor, consisting of two bedrooms, two home offices, two-and-a-half bathrooms, a kitchen, a great room, a laundry/wardrobe and a library in the hallway. There will also be a full basement, as well as space for four cars in the garages.

Reading blueprints was a learning experience for me. I needed help comprehending the architectural symbols. For example, throughout the blueprint I saw several red circles and asked Manley what they represented. “Those are five-foot-diameter turning dimensions for your wheelchair,” he responded.

At times it was difficult for me to envision the layout of rooms. Symbols for the kitchen appliances had to be explained. When I needed more explanation, Manley would draw a sketch of the elevation. We constantly reviewed my need for access to storage areas and work surfaces.

Rosetti with interior designer Anna Lyon at the Parade of Homes
Rosetti with interior designer Anna Lyon at the Parade of Homes

The kitchen and bathroom are the most critical design areas in a home. To give these rooms expert consideration, we hired kitchen and bath designer and universal design specialist Mary Jo Peterson, CKD, CBD, CAPS, who lives in Brookfield, Connecticut. We met Peterson at the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) International Builders’ Show in January 2005. She worked with Manley on the kitchen and bath floor plans and positioned the cabinets, appliances, plumbing fixtures and countertops. She also helped select all the items for these rooms.

One of my best friends, Anna Lyon, is an interior designer. She reviewed the floor plans and elevations during the process and made suggestions for improvements. She also assisted us in drawing furniture to scale on the floor plan. Currently we are working with her to select the colors and finishes for the cabinets, flooring, countertops and walls.

In August 2005, I became acquainted with lighting design expert Patricia Rizzo from the Lighting Research Center at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. We worked together to deliver a NAHB seminar on the design and lighting for universal design homes. As a result of our NAHB collaboration, she offered the services of seven graduate students in the school’s lighting design center, who produced a universally designed lighting system.

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At the end of many years of planning, Mark and I have by necessity accumulated a vast sum of knowledge and experience about resources and pitfalls in accessible home planning. Because all families want beautiful, functional homes that will last through their lifetimes, Mark and I have committed to making our home available as a model for others. Termed the Universal Design Living Laboratory (UDLL), it will serve as a national demonstration home for the building industry and the public, showcasing universal design principles. Beyond the interior design of the home, the exterior landscape will also incorporate universal design fundamentals, including a water garden feature. Resource-and-energy-efficient green building methods, advanced automation technology, a healthy home construction approach and the design principles of feng shui will also be demonstrated.

Mark and I are building the home with the help of many corporate sponsors. These sponsors are providing specially selected products and services for the home.

The UDLL is receiving lots of national attention. Media and press coverage is ongoing and expected to increase once construction begins, which will likely bring visitors to the construction site. When the home is complete, tours will be given before Mark and I move in. Once we move in, we will conduct tours of the home by appointment only.

With regard to the lot we had originally selected in February 2006, Mark and I met with the homeowners’ association board of trustees to discuss the UDLL project. Regrettably, we were told that the homeowners were not in favor of our building on the lot out of fear that our home would draw unwanted traffic into the area. They were also opposed to the idea that it would house our home offices. Suddenly, Mark and I had to scrap our plans of building in that subdivision and look for a new lot. After a few months, we located a lot that is not in a subdivision. When the real estate transaction is final, the floor plans will be handed over to the builder for construction.

Once the home is completed, we will have reached a milestone in our lives. We hope that others can learn from and become inspired by our home, and that it can serve as a catalyst for change in the building and design community.

by Rosemarie Rossetti, PhD

Rosemarie Rossetti, PhD, is an internationally known speaker, trainer, consultant and writer. Rossetti is building the Universal Design Living Laboratory in metropolitan Columbus, Ohio. This home will serve as her residence and will become a demonstration site to bring about awareness of universal design to the public and the building industry.

She can be reached at 614.471.6100 or Ro*******@UD**.com

For details about the Universal Design Living Laboratory, visit www.UDLL.com

For details about Rossetti’s speaking business, visit www.RosemarieSpeaks.com

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