A Shore Bet in Adaptable, Accessible and Barrier-Free Design

The important thing for people to understand is the concept of universal design is about ability, not disability,” noted Adrienne C. Hamilton, Director of Construction with the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Richard Duncan, Director of Training for The Center for Universal Design, College of Design at North Carolina State University adds, “Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

Driving down North Carolina Avenue, it is difficult to miss the newly constructed 3,500 square foot home with its two-story, shingle-style wood frame construction, reminiscent of early homes on the northeastern shore. This magnificent house boasts a prominent brick chimney rising above the steep pitched rooftop and is crowned with eyebrow dormers, detailed eaves and elegant crown moldings. Its many windows create a spirit of invitation and the verandah, which encompasses one end of the house, overlooks the grounds with its array of shade trees, evergreens and flowers.
The pristine home strikes awe in travelers who first enter Atlantic City’s Atlantic Heights District. Upon entrance to the property, the Healing Garden immediately invokes a harmonious juxtaposition with beauty and invitation to its housing counterpart. At first glance, no one would guess that this house was constructed as a universal design model. Built by CRDA, in partnership with the AARP (formerly the American Association for Retired Persons), and The Center for Universal Design, College of Design at North Carolina State University, the Universal Design Demonstration Home was created to showcase a safe, user-friendly design for people of all ages and abilities.
In the Healing Garden, guests meander along pathways lined with ornamental grasses, shrubs, and flowering plants, observing their contrasting textures and colors. The main path leads its visitor behind a set of decorative gates to the patio and its raised planters. Behind the sitting wall lies an enclosed space large enough for a group to enjoy a delicious cookout from the outdoor grill. Across the lawn from the patio, plans include construction of a stage for periodic outdoor presentations and performances. For those guests who feel inclined, gliders will be available where they may rest their legs and view the stunning display of blossoming perennial flowerbeds. Opposite the gliders, chaise lounges will give an opportunity to relax, read a book or sleep in the warm sun.
In the center of the garden, a pavilion presents guests with an all-weather retreat. The enclosure offers shelter from rain or other inclement weather. On warm days with the windows opened, the aroma of flowers from surrounding perennial beds drift aimlessly and effortlessly to permeate the pavilion. The beautifully manicured butterfly gardens offer guests the hope of glimpsing a Monarch butterfly in flight.
Children and adults are encouraged to explore a secondary seashell pathway which weaves through the garden. Following completion of construction, those with a careful eye will discover the many small, sculptured animals nestled among the rich foliage which beautifully lines the path. The garden includes a project area devoted to gardening and plant related projects such as flower arrangements, wreath making, and pot planting. Raised planters facilitate the inclusion of wheelchair users in the garden activities.
The interior of the house is a marvel to behold. Smooth, stepless entryways for ease in accessibility lead guests into a home setting with spacious hallways. Initially, there are slight nuances that draw ones attention to the fact that this home is interwoven with concepts of universal design. Lever handled doors blend into the ambiance and add charm to the home’s design; widened doorways and hallway entries lend to the grandness of the home.
It is not until guests enter the kitchen, where universal design features including workspaces with lowered countertops, specialized cabinets and smartly placed appliances are more pronounced. Against a color-scheme of beige, taupe and white presented on the cabinetry, softly-patterned wall coverings, basket-woven backsplash and floor tiles, burgundy window treatments, seat cushions, island countertop and lamp shades add a playful exchange.
Hidden universal design applications are found in the built-in wall oven with one pullout rack at conventional countertop height. The adaptable roll-out base cabinet next to the wall oven affords an open-sitting workspace. Open knee space under the kitchen sink allows for a seated workspace and is achieved by fitting the base cabinets with adaptable doors, rolling carts and removable shelving. A motorized adjustable counter provides workspace for a tall person, children or seated users at its lowest height. A wet bar located within the kitchen area features an under-the-counter ice maker, refrigerator, and a slender wine rack that are concealed behind maple doors with recessed and beaded detailing and a subtly distressed vintage white finish. Other features in the Universal Design Demonstration Home include curbless showers, state-of-the-art security, a home elevator and chair lift, and a communication system throughout the house.
“We wanted to create a demonstration project that will show what universal design is. Because the home is available for individually scheduled guided tours, it will let people everywhere, not just in Atlantic City, know what it’s about and what the advantages of universal design are. It is for everyone—not just older people, but for everyone, no matter age or ability,” adds Hamilton.
The Universal Design Demonstration Home is one of three initiatives set forth by the CRDA’s Universal Design Homes Project. Universal Homes for Atlantic City and the Universal Home Modification Program are the remaining ambitious initiatives of the project. The creation of the Universal Design Demonstration Home was built to showcase affordable new construction and practical universal design features and products, which may be incorporated into all new construction and in-home renovation projects.

Universal Homes for Atlantic City is a program to include universal design concepts in new housing units and neighborhoods that are being developed by the CRDA and other private or public contractors. (CRDA is also reviewing current projects in planning and development and making modifications to feature universal design concepts where possible.) This initiative teaches builders not to wait until something happens but to design smart from the origination. If they make the effort to proactively plan ahead, the residents stand to benefit throughout their lives. “It is not difficult to apply universal design features to a new house if you plan ahead. It’s when you go back that it’s difficult because you don’t have, for instance, the blocking for grab bars where you need them. It’s so easy to put blocking in when you’re building. It’s so easy to put the wider doors in; it’s not going to cost more than $3 to $4 more per door. These are the things that are worthwhile to think about because they are so simple to incorporate when you’re building but cause a headache when you have to go back and rip things out,” Hamilton points out.
“When the CRDA decides to build housing in a certain neighborhood, it acquires the property through voluntary sales from owners or it has the power of eminent domain. CRDA uses that power to acquire land so that it can assemble larger parcels to create new neighborhoods,” Hamilton said. “In many cases, when the CRDA acquires existing homes, it offers the owners an opportunity to acquire an exchange home. A number of people have taken advantage of this offer and in many cases, they have moved out of row houses or single-family houses and moved into brand new homes.”
By state statute, one and one quarter percent of casino revenues is made available to the CRDA for projects in Atlantic City and the state of New Jersey. The Authority uses these dedicated casino investment funds and other revenues to execute development plans that contribute to urban revitalization, balanced community development, economic stabilization, and retail and entertainment opportunities in Atlantic City and throughout the state. Since 1984, the CRDA has provided the city with $225 million in new housing developments and the creation of 1,842 housing units—increasing Atlantic City’s housing stock by 12 percent.
One of the most interesting developments pertains to the Washington Square area which features the unique designs originated by Frank Lloyd Wright for his American System-Built Housing, updated for contemporary living by Taliesin Architects. These single family homes were financed through gaming industry revenue derived from Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal and other casino holdings. “The Trump organization is excited to be part of the renaissance of Atlantic City. These funds have had a great impact of the local community and we look forward to the city’s continued growth,” states Mark Brown, President and CEO of Trump Casinos and Hotels.
The cost for development was $2 million. Like many of their other projects already in production, CRDA has incorporated universal design concepts in the Washington Square project scheduled for completion in early 2003.
“The effort is to rebuild Atlantic City... to revitalize Atlantic City. Private, for-profit developers have not found it profitable to come into the city and build just now. I think that’s going to change in part because of the revitalization that has already taken place and because of the construction of new casinos in the city,” noted Hamilton. “I think it’s becoming clear Atlantic City is a desirable place to be. There are some wonderful, beautiful, new neighborhoods.”
Homes are available to purchase through standard purchasing channels and practices. CRDA offers subsidies to home buyers and there are no set formulas to apply and qualify for these subsidies. “CRDA is focused on making affordable housing available to the people who live in Atlantic City,” Hamilton stated. “Builders also need to know about the concept of universal design. Until recently, this was something that builders really didn’t want to know about. People had a hard time finding builders who understand about making a home accessible without making it take on an institutional type of look.”


— by Jayne L. Archuleta

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