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The Accessible Home, by Deborah Pierce (Review)


The Accessible Home, Deborah Pierce
© The Taunton Press

My first encounter with an accessible home was in the 1970s: a wood wheelchair ramp built on the front of my North Dakota Grandmother's house.

For many of us, that's what an accessible home is. But it's not any longer. Or, as Deborah Pierce's The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages & Abilities (The Taunton Press, 2012) puts it, "...the accessible home has evolved beyond grab-bars and ramps to one where accessibility is built into the design."

Accessible Means Good Design

I think that every home should be accessible--not just for our illusory future wheelchair-bound selves (can this ever happen?), but even for daily, foot-mobile living. Accessible living makes great sense. Ramps in lieu of stairs. Easy-to-access bathroom sinks. Who wouldn't want these things?

Pierce gives many examples:

  • A mudroom large enough to allow for wheelchair turns...is also large enough to allow for many people to bundle up at once.
  • Wide kitchen aisles for mobility devices...also make space for "lugging groceries and for cooking together."
  • Cabinets beside a fireplace with low shelves...also are great for kids hunting for books or board games.

I found myself paging through The Accessible Home, foraging for ideas for my own home--having forgotten that this was a specialized book only for those with disabilities. Yet the fact that I am able now doesn't mean I can predictably graph the decline of my abilities over the coming decades ("Yes, exactly at age 85, I will need ramps."). If only life worked that way. Tomorrow I could suddenly be in need of many of these accommodations, and I'd find myself wondering why I didn't build them out in the first place.

One Failure of the Book

One grave error of The Accessible Home is a Left and Right Coast myopia inherent in many design books: where is everyone else represented? In other words, a great number of people live in the communities shown, but a huge population does not. Even people who live in the former communities aren't always rich.

Here's where case study houses, architects, and contractors from this book are located: Boston, Berkeley, New Haven, Whidby Island (WA), Cambridge, Takoma Park, MD (Washington DC), Seattle, Palo Alto, San Francisco.

This is the class of people that can afford to contract out everything. Not a single family member or friend is shown swinging a hammer. Few are forced to constrain themselves to a tight budget.

The most downscale house I could find (The "Suburban Renovation"), which happens to have been designed by the author herself, is located in the Boston, MA area and commands almost 4,000 square feet, including a gym and a central elevator.

Where is the $135,000 duplex in San Antonio, TX? Where is the rambler in Meridian, MS? Where is the two bedroom, one-bath cottage in Firebaugh, CA?

Are the rest of us cut adrift if we can't hire architects and designers? The answer is "Yes," at least with this book.


So, let's just call it even and say that this book is intended for a certain audience. If you're part of that audience, you'll find tons of great ideas to help you prior to your meetings with the design team. It's a major plus that the author is herself an architect who works in the field of accessible design.

Not just that, but she has a very real, emotional connection with the field, stemming from an experience in the early 1990s when she saw first-hand the obstacles that the disabled encounter.

One notable exception to the "myopia" I mention is the Foreword by Michael Graves, which promotes the Wounded Warrior Project--a program that helps to provide accessible single family houses on bases for disabled service members and families.

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