Architecture for Everyone

2015 marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Since 1978, the nonprofit group Alpha One has been redefining disability in Maine. Architect Jill Johanning believes the best design is the kind that can be used by all. 

AIA DESIGN THEORY – February 2015
Edited by Rebecca Falzano | Photography by Sarah Beard Buckley


Traditionally, when it comes time to choose a home and community, we are young and, if we are able-bodied, not necessarily thinking much about accessibility. That is, until some life event forces a reevaluation. But a disability, even temporary, can impact any of us at some point in our lives. “Maine’s historic architecture is one of the greatest things about living here,” says architect Jill Johanning of Alpha One. “It is also one of the greatest challenges to creating equal access for all abilities. Older homes in Maine are not adequate to meet the growing need for affordability, accessibility, and social connectivity for older Mainers.” Johanning believes that design professionals have the opportunity to make what they preserve and build new for their clients flexible enough to meet all needs. And for those historic buildings that simply cannot be modified, Johanning says architects need to look past exceptions that may be in the law, as well as ensure that all new construction is welcoming to everyone. MH+D asked her to tell us more. 


Q. What are some examples of accessible design?

A. Accessible features should be viewed as standard residential elements in every home. Everyone needs to be able to get into their home and have enough space to get through the home. If not, then everything that follows is meaningless. By expanding the old efficiency rule of the kitchen work triangle (sink, cooktop, and refrigerator) to the entire first floor of every home, along with an entrance with no threshold, a bathroom with accessible features, and a bedroom, we could greatly impact the amount of accessible residential choices in Maine. If these three elements were a part of all homes, they would allow people of all abilities to potentially remain in their home as long as they choose to and be able to visit all friends and family. 


Q. How can architects make accessibility an inherent part of the design process? 

A. Accessibility needs to be part of the conversation whenever you are talking about investing for a sustainable home, building, or community. Many in Maine have put emphasis on green building by using the latest energy-efficient technology to reduce our impact on the environment and to save operating costs. Sustainable design is important, and it is improving our communities; however, if we cannot remain in our homes and engaged in communities as our abilities change, we are not creating sustainable communities. Standard accessible features like wider doors will allow families to remain in their homes long enough to see the benefit of their energy improvements. A sustainable and accessible home reduces its environmental and social impact while saving money on the cost of living over the lifetime of the residence. Many people may be concerned about the cost of renovations to their home for access; however, when you compare the costs to moving to assisted living for just one member of the family, the payback may be realized in just a few months. If clients embrace ideas like visitability or inclusive or universal design like they do green building, it could create an even broader ripple effect throughout our families, neighborhoods, environment, health care, and economy. For every new property built without features like level entry and accessible bathrooms, we are burdening current and future generations with more economic costs to fix what we do today.


Q. How does this translate into your work? 

A. The demand for our residential ramp and home renovation grants are increasing every week. Our Access Design program offers local consulting help and resources for any homeowner, business owner, or designer who wants better access, and we provide free technical assistance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.  


Q. What does the future of design for everyone look like?

A. Real progress in accessibility for all abilities, young and old, over the next 25 years will require more public awareness and a shift in attitude from everyone to make a positive change. We need more environments like Pine Tree Camp in Rome, Maine, a program of Pine Tree Society where the architecture and the people welcome all abilities. We all need to support initiatives for better livability for all generations, expand housing options in our neighborhoods that are limited by old regulations, demand design that is inviting for all, and encourage professionals to implement designs that go beyond the minimum requirements in order to make Maine a socially sustainable community for all.  

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