Sometimes even a small home addition project can be transformative. As a wheelchair-riding architect, I waited 22 years to make our 790-square-foot Berkeley home more accessible. With my lived experience and 26 years of designing accessible homes for clients, I knew I could transform the house into something so much more accessible, but I didn’t know the journey was going to teach me so much.
My ambulatory wife and firm co-founder Elisa Mikiten, an urban planner, our son and our two dogs had been crashing into each other for years. We needed a generous master bedroom and bathroom, a home study, and more privacy for our teenager. But that was all left-brain thinking. In our hearts, we wanted to add dramatic, sculptural beauty to our boxy little house and to create a connection to nature despite our urban site.
There was one more thing. Most people think accessibility prevents architectural elegance. But I knew that it’s possible to unleash creativity and make universal design solutions that are also beautiful architecture.
We live in the nation’s most expensive housing and construction market, so some sweat equity would be required. But as a woodworker and occasional furniture builder, I saw the opportunity to translate my design vision into reality with my own hands as a compelling part of the journey. I teamed up with our frequent partners Lorick & Martinez of Oakland, and we were ready to go.
The design process started with the part that excited me the most: creating a connection to nature despite knowing the addition would eat up our tiny rectangular yard. I’ve always been fascinated by the creep of the sun farther south as it sets through the year until the winter solstice, after it gradually slides north again.
To start the project, I calculated the winter solstice sunset and drew a sun angle through my backyard. That set the corner of the addition, and the curving wall that creates my home office represents the arc that the sun and moon describe every day.
I love curved walls for their sculptural excitement and changing shadows, but this one also created a sweeping deck that opens to the western sky. Magically, the compact, energetically curving deck feels more open than the old, static 20-by-30 yard ever did. The sun clears the house’s curved copper corner by midday, and it’s used far more than the sunken yard ever was.
The solar angle on the exterior opened up geometric possibilities for the interior. Radial walls and wedge-shaped spaces encouraged less thinking about ADA diagrams and more about how a wheelchair user flows through a space.
The floor-to-ceiling northwest corner window is aligned with the winter solstice. The gently curving wall captures the light on that special day. It’s a ritual that marks the start of another lap around the sun for earth and for us, and it connects me to thousands of years of people studying the sun and marking the seasons.
Nowhere did the geometries work to advantage better than in the bathroom. The small, wedge-spaced space I had available seemed impossibly small for an accessible bathroom. But once I thought through the layout of fixtures in the triangular roll-in shower (which are arranged for both seated and standing use) I realized this was an ideal shape.
The place where you sit needs easy reach-to-shower controls and shampoo shelves; therefore, this spot can be narrow while the space where a wheelchair is turning around should be wide. A triangle is perfect, and I’ve honed this arrangement in subsequent projects to great success.
I built the teak countertop (with ample knee space) and mirror wall with hidden cabinet and coated them with Epifanes clear marine finish. I also built a gently curved, floating walnut desk for my home office.
The curve was inspired by the rear wall and wanting to make a gesture to opening up the space to the rear doors. But it wound up being a big help in creating more space for my wheelchair to not be in my family’s way while I’m using my desk chair, another lesson that thinking beyond code-sized boxes and ADA turning circles can yield more interesting and usable spaces.
The next big challenge was connecting the rear deck to ground level. I wanted an accessible second egress for emergencies and to get to my wood shop in the garage. But without space for a ramp, I designed a “stramp,” or a stair/ramp with wheelchair-length treads and 4-inch risers shallow enough for me to roll up and down by popping a small wheelie.
This wouldn’t be a suitable commercial ADA solution, but in a single-family home there’s room for creativity, and it’s been a boon. Previously, I had to exit the front door, go down the side ramp and unlock a gate to get to the rear yard. Now it’s easy to dash to and from the shop when working on a project or grilling on the barbecue.
What wasn’t so simple was the actual construction. For the overall curve I used my office’s oversize plotter to print a 1:1 template to follow. But getting the wedge-shaped segments of the stramp steps right and individually shaping each tapering piece of redwood felt more like furniture-building than ramp-building. But I appreciate the fan-shaped pattern every time I use it.
Of particular fun was working with the metal siding guru and owner of Eagle Sheet Metal in doing the copper cladding. I found a half-price, odd-width roll of copper and with CAD worked out the exact size and placement of every panel, yielding almost no waste.
Elements of accessibility provide unexpected benefits. A hidden “grocery gate” at the deck is perfect for bringing camping equipment, luggage and bulky items in from the car without schlepping up the stairs. The stramp is safer for my toddler nephew than stairs, and my limping old dog can use it comfortably. The shower seat designed for me turns out to be my wife’s preference, and two neighbors have used the shower during periods of temporary disability after surgeries.
Narrow floor-to-ceiling windows at each corner make it easy for me to see into the yard from a seated position, but they also make sunrises and sunsets a thing to behold. When we first saw the moon set sliding down our 16-inch-wide, 10-foot-tall window, it was moving in a way that a regular 3- by 4-foot window could never have achieved.
So, our urban home is finally wheelchair and family friendly and ready for us to gracefully age in place. It is connected to nature at multiple scales, letting us relax and able to enjoy the present while ready to welcome the future.
Although the house was done, the journey was not; another transformation was coming. The process of starting with an artistic idea drove home something I always knew: a designer’s mind can be transported into a more fertile place when we stop focusing just on ADA numbers and start designing around actual people’s actual needs. So, when I submitted the project for the QR Master Design Awards, I needed a title, and “The Art of Access” immediately came to mind.
This phrase resonated with me, and I realized I had cracked open a new approach, one that my profession direly needed to move past the stale, 31-year-old minimums of the ADA. I created an affiliate company using the name The Art of Access and started talking to developers and building owners about how they didn’t have to compromise great design to be accessible and inclusive. Within a year our little Berkeley company was working with institutional clients across the country and traveling to Europe and Asia to help global tech firms create more inclusive buildings.
As a wheelchair-riding architect, I’ve always struggled against people hiring me for just technical assistance. What I really wanted to be was an architectural artist. By letting myself follow my own path, even on a small project, I broke through. Not only do I have a built example that demonstrates a new way of approaching accessibility, but the sun has risen on a new phase of my life and career. And, at least on the winter solstice, I know exactly—precisely—how it will set. QR