This is a story with the potential to bring hope and real connection to those who have lost theirs. It’s a story about giving people with mobility issues a chance to regain their independence while growing accustomed to their new life. And all thanks to Julie Lineberger and architect Joseph Cincotta, a husband-wife team who own LineSync Architecture, an award-winning architectural firm based in the tiny town of Whitingham, Vermont. For years, innovation and modernization have been the bedrocks of their successful firm. But when their godson became paralyzed, they turned to their creative genius and found a way to help in a meaningful way. They created a product called Wheel Pad, a modular, mobile housing unit with an accessible bedroom and bathroom for those with mobility issues or other health conditions. These small mobile homes can sit on a family’s property or be directly connected to a home. They are customizable and highly adaptable to a person’s needs. They give their dwellers the opportunity to live in comfort surrounded by familiar faces, while at the same time offering patients independence, autonomy, normalcy—and a secure feeling knowing loved ones are nearby as they convalesce. ABILITY’s Sabrina Bertucci spoke with Lineberger via Zoom about how Wheel Pads work, their sustainability, and just how close this endeavor is to Lineberger’s heart.
Sabrina Bertucci: Where did you get the inspiration for the Wheel Pad?
Julie Lineberger: My godson Riley Poor was an amazing videographer for extreme sports people. He was here in Vermont, where I’m based. At the time, he was doing a documentary on Simon Dumont when Simon won the X Games! It was very exciting, and Riley was going to come to brunch the next morning with his father. I was very happy until I got a call from his father who said, “Hey, we’re not going to make it to brunch. There’s been an accident. We’re in the emergency ward at Albany hospital. We don’t know if Riley’s going to make it.” I was like, oh, my goodness.
My husband and I jumped in the car, went to Albany Med, where we found out that there had been a celebration and an accident in the pool. No one says exactly what happened, because all the people there want to take full blame and not put it on one person or another. But it left Riley a quadriplegic. We didn’t know what to do. We just showed up and did whatever we could for Riley and his parents. And little by little, he was able to breathe on his own, but was not capable of much movement and went to Craig Hospital. When he finished rehabbing, he finished the documentary on Simon Dumont using accessible adaptive equipment.
He had been offered a job with Nike before the accident, and they honored the job. So he moved to Portland, Oregon, but could not find an accessible apartment where a caregiver could help him in the shower. So he was forced to live in an accessible hotel room for nine months, searching for a place.
Bertucci: Oh, my gosh!
Lineberger: And you know, he’d never used a wheelchair before, he’d never been ill before. After work, a myriad of friends said, “Will you come to dinner, do this, do that?” He was maxed out. And no one could come be with him in the hotel room; it was just too small. So he was very isolated for nine months. We’d go out and visit and whatever, but it was very, very difficult.
He finally got the apartment, then bought a house, and asked us, his godparents, since our first business is an architectural firm, “Hey, can you help me make this house universally accessible for me, and then have a caregiver live downstairs?” So we did. As we were doing that, my husband said, “Riley, what if there had been an accessible bedroom and bathroom unit that we could have put on your mom’s house or your dad’s house? And you wouldn’t have been isolated for all that time?” That was how Wheel Pad was born.
Bertucci: Oh, wow!
Lineberger: Yeah. (laughs)
Bertucci: OK! So the Pad is attached to a larger house?
Lineberger: It can be. “PAD” is for “Personal Accessible Dwelling.” We have an +Add PAD model that is just that. It’s 200 square feet. It’s just the bedroom and bathroom, and we haul it into whatever house will be the host home. We build a connector so that whoever is living in the Pad can roll in for dinner or help someone with homework or be part of the family, but then come back to his or her own private space with their own bathroom. One door is connected to the house, the other door is connected to a ramp, so if the person needs a caregiver, they don’t have to go all the way through the house. It gives a little bit more privacy. It can make a house accessible for that person, whoever is going to live in it, within two weeks.
Lineberger: What makes it take longer is if permits are required, that sort of thing. With all the ADU—accessible dwelling unit noise right now—it’s getting much, much easier. But we’ve never been denied a permit. We’ve placed 11 of them now. We’re about to place our 12th. It’s so exciting. Each of our customers wants to be our poster child, even though some of them are very old, like 90 and 92.
Bertucci: (laughs) I can be your poster child! I will totally do that if you need! (laughs)
Bertucci: OK, I have too many questions! I’m sure you’re familiar with the tiny house fad right now. Would you say the dwellings are larger than that or smaller?
Lineberger: The +Add PAD is smaller; it’s only 200 square feet. The only accessible tiny house that’s on the market is a little bit larger, because most tiny homes have the bed up in a loft, which won’t work for someone with mobility issues. We’re just building the prototype right now, and that will be slightly larger, but not that much larger. And we’ve got two people planning on putting it on a piece of property, one not attached to a family member’s home and the other a friend’s home, but they are both on properties large enough for a tiny home.
Bertucci: That’s great. I personally think it’s a genius idea. Do you think it would become more popular once people get to know that it’s interesting?
Lineberger: Absolutely. Right now in the US, families who need accessibility for a family member and who have an accessible house, as we say, account for only seven percent of families. So we really need to build more accessibility into the US housing stock. And this is a quick way to do it without making a multitude of decisions about, “OK, we’re going to change this bathroom and make it accessible.” That’s a lot of work, and it takes tons of decisions. It takes a long time, about six months usually, to get an accessible bedroom and bathroom. So we feel that we are offering something that isn’t out there yet to streamline making houses accessible.
Bertucci: I love the idea, because to me, it represents a sense of independence. I was reading something on your site about how instead of languishing in hospitals, people could have a space of their own.
Bertucci: They’d have an aide come in and then leave through the ramp.
Bertucci: I think that would really, really help people be independent.
Lineberger: I never knew anything about any of this—which probably is the majority of people in our country—until Riley’s accident. And now we’re finding multitudes of people who are living in a hospital bed in their living room, or just a regular bed, with no privacy. It’s kind of hard to feel dignified and go on with your life when you feel like you’re in the middle of a fishbowl.
Bertucci: Exactly. These tiny houses on wheels are manufactured in Vermont. Can they be transported to different areas of the US? Or, do these stay in southern Vermont?
Lineberger: Oh, no! Right now we have them in New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire, and the one we’re about to place will be in Nebraska. When we came up with this idea, we were thinking of people with spinal cord injuries, but we were also thinking, as you read on the website, of the numerous service members who need one. And a lot of service members have friends with large trucks, so we thought that someone could just come, load it up and take it to where they need it.
Two of our models are on wheels—the Mi PAD, which is the accessible tiny house, and the +Add PAD, which I’ve been talking about. They all meet requirements to travel across agency of transportation roads. However, we had one veteran who had ALS, and he loved the Wheel Pad concept. He didn’t want to destroy his Craftsman house. On the website you’ll see it; it’s Edmond Little’s story. He said, “You know, I’m losing my legs, but I still want to sleep next to my wife.” An +Add PAD can’t accommodate a queen-sized bed. Thus we did a prototype for the XL PAD. That one has to be transported on a flatbed, and it needs to be craned into place. The other model we have right now is a Multi PAD, where people put more than one +Add PAD together. The one we did in New Hampshire was for faculty housing.
There are three +Add PADs together under one roof with a common space. We were able to truck in the three +Add PADS, and then we built a structure around it.
Bertucci: Oh, wow! Can you explain how the Pad is green?
Lineberger: Yes. It’s all Forest Certified and sustainable wood. We don’t use any formaldehyde in any of our products. All our paint is very low VOC. We found out through working with Riley that a lot of people with spinal cord injuries also have chemical sensitivities. So we’ve made it as green as possible. It’s built with six panels that are structurally insulated. It makes it energy-efficient. The same with the windows. Our R-values are really high, so you don’t need a lot of heating or cooling. Each PAD has a heat pump for heating and cooling. We’re in Vermont, where it gets very, very cold, and people don’t have problems.
Bertucci: That’s great information. When you were at Harvard, did you have any idea that you would eventually work in this industry?
Lineberger: Not one iota. It was through being there for Riley, showing up for Riley. My husband and I have a very successful architectural practice that wins a lot of awards. We’re green. We’re sustainable. We’re a B corporation. My husband’s incredibly creative. He comes up with one idea after another all the time. But when this came up with Riley, he and I were talking about it, and I said, “You know what? We have to make this happen, because this is our legacy. This is something we can offer the world.”
We’re starting out with the US. We incorporated as an L3C, which means a low-income limited liability company. As we grow, we plan to become a B corp. Our view is, we know we will be highly successful, and we don’t want a venture capitalist to come in and give our shareholders more money, take the business over, and make it less affordable. Our mission is to continually try to make it more and more affordable, to keep as many families together as possible. They’re $79,000. It’s a big hot-ticket item to get an +Add PAD. We keep trying to reduce those costs. But between COVID and the ship in the Suez Canal, materials are rising and rising.
We’re trying to keep it as affordable as possible with each version, trying to do that more and more. We help people connect to credit unions to finance them. For veterans, we help them get their specially adapted housing grant. Another thing by being an L3C, which is a hybrid between a nonprofit and a for-profit, foundations can give us a grant. Say it was the Cerebral Palsy Foundation. They could give us a grant for $80,000 as part of their program-related investments, and we could then give one away. So I’m working with AARP Foundation on that right now. They can say, “We’re going to run a contest and we want this to be a prize.” They can give us the money for it, and then we can give it away. And there are other foundations that can partially support maybe the purchase of a Wheel Pad that we would then pass on to a client.
Lineberger: Yes. Right now they’re manufactured in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Texas, and we’re about to have a liaison with a manufacturer in the Portland, Oregon, area. We want to make them available everywhere. But right now, because we’re just getting started, we don’t charge for the shipping fees.
Bertucci: That’s amazing!
Lineberger: We really want to help as many families stay together as possible throughout the country. So each time we step out a little further. When we get to do this one in Nebraska, that will be our furthest.
Bertucci: How long does it typically take to manufacture one?
Lineberger: We try to keep two available at all times. With COVID, we keep getting sold out. Right now we’re backlogged about three months. Last year we had two available, and one family had theirs installed and ready to move in in three weeks, and another family as well, so that’s when we have them on hand. If not, it actually only takes about a month to build them, but all the manufacturers of course are backed up because of the tiny house surge. During COVID, there was such a backlog of people getting their materials. We like to have them available immediately, and then we just have to go through the permit process. In Vermont, that’s not a problem, but when we put one on Cape Cod, oh, my goodness. The process itself took two months. We work with our customers and we’ve never been denied a permit, but sometimes it takes a little bit longer. So I can’t give you a clear answer. I’m sorry, Sabrina. (laughs)
Bertucci: (laughs) Not at all! The greatest thing is that they can be customized, right?
Lineberger: Yes. That takes a little bit longer, like if you want to have a different siding or a different color. We have our manufacturers who are building them from our plans. If they’re customized, they have to get into the production line. But yes, they can be customized.
Bertucci: You were talking about the grants. To be a little more specific, can it be covered by insurance, such as health insurance? (laughs)
Lineberger: We would love it to be covered by insurance. We are working with a marketing firm to help us reach that goal, because our true belief is that it will cost insurance companies less in the long run than the hospitalization and all the accommodation. So far, we have not been successful, but we won’t give up. The one insurance industry that is funding the different Wheel Pad models is Workers Comp. In extreme worker compensation situations they will pay for one. If it’s a temporary situation, they’ll pay for the lease. If it’s warranted, they will purchase a Wheel Pad for their client. But that’s the only insurance venue we’ve been able to get through. It’s a start.
Bertucci: Do you have solar panels connected to the unit?
Lineberger: We haven’t yet. They can be. We would totally appreciate that, because we like things to be sustainable. No one has asked for that yet or been able to make that investment.
But it is an option. Unfortunately, right now it’s more expensive.
Lineberger: I can try. (laughter) No, it’s very, very simple. I personally couldn’t do it, but I’ve watched it being done. It takes about four hours for a plumber to hook it into the host home’s water system. It’s not difficult at all. The one we’re putting in in Nebraska is—oh, gosh, there’s no delicate way to say it. He uses a colostomy bag, so there are no solids that will ever go into his toilet. So he is putting in a gray water system, so it’ll just be from the shower that everything goes. We’ve been able to get that approved. We will work with whatever sustainable systems people want to use. We have a model of a composting toilet, but again, right now, all these things add to the cost, and people just aren’t able, no matter how much they’d like to have it be solar, off-grid, with composting, no client has yet been able to do that.
Bertucci: So you have a combination of short-term, where it might be similar to a trailer or RV setup, or long-term, where you connect it to the actual home?
Lineberger: We’ve never had one that’s not connected to a home.
Bertucci: I thought you leased them out, too, and therefore it was a short-term concept.
Lineberger: Not short-term. We’ll lease them out, but with a six-month minimum. By the time you build the connector, it doesn’t make financial sense to lease it for shorter. Getting it there, building the connector, and taking it away in two months is not cost-effective. But some people think six months is short-term. It’s not really like an RV, although we’d love it to be. When we were in the concept stage and looking at the RV industry, we saw that they use a whole different set of materials—a lot of chemicals that we don’t think would be appropriate, and they’re always kind of rickety.
Bertucci: I was wondering about the difference between an RV and the Wheel Pad. It does seem like your design is sturdier and more of a long-term concept. Even though RVs are on the road a lot, they have to have some sustainability to them, but the structure does seem to be rickety.
Lineberger: Ours is like an addition. It’s modular. It goes right on. It’s 30 years, just like a house is.
Bertucci: Is that maybe the other reason you were talking about the added issue that you had with the person who had the audacity to want to sleep with his wife? To have that larger bed meant you had to modify your design, whereas in an RV, you could just buy one with a side-out—meaning the side could be expanded to accommodate a large bed. But your model doesn’t allow for that kind of a side-out system, right?
Lineberger: We priced it. The materials for RVs are much lighter. It didn’t work for us. We’ve seen a couple of people who have adapted their RVs to make them as accessible as possible, but entry and exit is still extremely difficult. We just haven’t found anything. We’d love to, once we get all these models going, get into that to make it easier. But at this point, we haven’t found anything that could be affordable and accessible in a way that we would put our name behind it.
Bertucci: When you go into one of yours, is the bed right there?
Lineberger: No. It doesn’t come with a bed, because everybody has a different need or a different desire. They don’t come furnished. People have put beds in them every which way. We keep it very flexible. The bathroom is a total wet room. There is a hoist track where people can put whatever hoist system they want into that track. For transfers into the bedroom, they can go straight into a shower chair. We have that available. But again, some people say they need more storage. We do have some cubbies and things like that. Some people have different equipment they need, so we decided not to do them furnished because everyone’s got a different way of living in the space.
Bertucci: And you purposely didn’t put anything else in the space because of the limitations of the room, particularly as it relates to the kitchen?
Lineberger: That was Riley’s idea. He said, “When I first got hurt, I wasn’t cooking. I couldn’t do anything.” The whole point is to be included with the family during dinner and not be isolated in your little PAD. But there have been a couple of people who have put in a microwave or a dorm fridge. Yes, they want to be with the family, but they also want to get up and have their own cup of coffee in the morning and not see anybody before they have their coffee. So there is enough room for that type of adaptability.
Bertucci: You mentioned the connector. Is it enclosed? How does that work?
Lineberger: Yes. All the ones we’ve built so far. The one about to be installed in Nebraska will be different; it’s about a five foot by five foot connector. It’s been different for every house. Some are very, very simple, because that’s what the customer wanted. Others match the interior of the house with shiny wood floors. It’s up to the customer. They’re all different. We work with the customers’ contractor to help them build whatever it is the customer wants.
Bertucci: So the ceiling system for transfer from the bed to the shower, could that be extended to the house if you wanted to build the connector that way?
Lineberger: I don’t know if it could be extended to the house. You’d have to put in a new track. We just have that one track.
Bertucci: I just have a one-track mind. (laughter)
Lineberger: Good one!
Bertucci: So if they need grab bars, would you work with their contractor to install them? Is that something your architectural firm would do?
Lineberger: No. There are grab bars throughout the bathroom. They’re translucent. They’re really cool looking. One other thing I forgot to say because this was designed for our then 26-year-old godson, it couldn’t look like a hospital room. It had to be the coolest room in the house. Some of the photos of what people have done with those rooms are pretty amazing. If you wanted grab bars in the connector or something like that, we would help the contractor figure out what they needed and how to do it.
Bertucci: I’m looking at the one on the Wheel Pad website. It looks great to me with the little flowers in the front.
Lineberger: This woman is 91 years old. She’s an artist. She just moved in here to live with her daughter and her husband. We did this video interview with her yesterday, where she said, “This is the best thing ever!” She’s an artist, and most of the work on the walls is her own work.
Bertucci: Oh, that’s really cool!
Lineberger: What she wanted for her bathroom was an adjustable height shower. She uses that shower head. She has grab bars, but she wanted to use a particular toilet. It’s a whole wet room, so whoever is in there to help her won’t get anything wet that’s not supposed to be. It’s a sloped door.
Bertucci: The metal I’m seeing, is that standard in your design?
Lineberger: Yes. The reason we used metal is because of weight restrictions. We wanted something water-resistant but that would also look cool.
Bertucci: I see the translucent bar you’re talking about. Nice!
Lineberger: This is the daughter and her husband.
Bertucci: So there are three people in there and they’re not squished each other. That’s pretty cool.
Lineberger: There’s another photo one I want to show you. You see this is the sliding glass door. That’s their entrance to the Wheel Pad. What you’re seeing is through that sliding glass door to the house that it’s connected to.
Bertucci: So you’re able to sandwich it right to the house?
Lineberger: You’re seeing the connector, with all the coats and everything.
Bertucci: Are the coats part of the connector?
Lineberger: Right. You can see the clapboard of the house, and the doors opening from the house.
Bertucci: What a great connector!
Lineberger: Then there’s the Wheel Pad. That’s how you get in the Wheel Pad.
Bertucci: Oh, I see what you meant about two entrances. The person can enter from that back door, and then of course this door could be locked so nobody could enter the main house.
Lineberger: And this is going into the house. Everybody does the connector differently. She just put in all her artist’s materials and her desk, so she can still work.
Bertucci: This is great. Have you done a cost analysis of how this compares to the cost of building a room addition onto a house?
Lineberger: Yes. It’s a similar cost, quite frankly. The thing that makes it different is that it’s all done. You don’t have all the decisions to make. It doesn’t take six months of construction in your home. Most additions do cost a little bit more. And we were surprised that even we couldn’t get the price of these +Add PADs down, and it’s mainly because of the labor costs. That’s the same if you’re doing the addition.
Bertucci: Can you speak to us about the labor costs?
Lineberger: I don’t have a lot of information on that, because that’s what our manufacturers tell us, which is the cost of the materials isn’t all that much. What’s good for us here is that it is all sustainable. It’s thoroughly thought through design. It exceeds ADA requirements on everything, whereas a lot of contractors don’t really understand universal design or ADA ideas. They just do the best they can.
Bertucci: Do they always have wheels?
Lineberger: It depends on the customer. People who don’t want it on wheels will take the wheels off and keep them elsewhere—should they ever decide to get rid of it.
Bertucci: Do you know anything about permits and taxes in different states?
Bertucci: If you’re bringing a trailer to your property and just adding a connector, it should be a lot easier than having building permits, right?
Lineberger: If you put the connector on, that makes it attached to the house. That’s when you need the permit.
Bertucci: Do you need a permit just for the connector or the trailer as well?
Lineberger: Once you connect the two, it becomes the same. What we’re doing, for example, in Nebraska, is we have a client who’s not connecting completely to the house. He is connecting to the electrical services, but it’s across a deck. He’s going to be going outside of his house where he is now. This man has multiple sclerosis (MS), so he’ll be going across a deck for his sleeping and bathroom area. But then it will free up their current house’s living room.
I’ll just show you a couple more photos. This guy, as you might be able to tell, is a landscape architect, and his wife had a spinal cord injury from a boogie boarding accident. Their entry just didn’t match. They decided to build a new entry, a med room to go in and her place, this is how they did their ramp. She didn’t put the ramp out the sliding glass door, so this was her view from the Wheel Pad. That’s what she wanted. It’s so different for every person.
Bertucci: Do all of them have sliding glass doors?
Lineberger: All PADs have a small door and a sliding glass door. And each person has a different way they want to deal with it.
Bertucci: So do you both have degrees in architecture?
Lineberger: No, no. I have a degree in education, and I used to run nonprofits. I was very lucky. I worked at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and UN Development Projects. I worked in Papua New Guinea and on the Thai Cambodian border and the Sultanate of Oman. When I met my now-husband of 35 years, he was in architecture school, and I realized, “You know what? Almost every single architect, by the time they get into their fifties, they’re with their second mate.” I think it’s the long, long hours in architecture, so I said, “We’re going to go into business together. I only want to get married once.” So I run the business and he designs, and now I’m kind of stepping out of LineSync Architecture and just doing Wheel Pad. This is my heart.
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