​‘Some like it hot’, some like it cold: A home design for special needs

​Joyce and Jan are identical twins who can never agree on things like temperature or light. This wouldn’t be so bad except they share a house in Hanover Park, a suburb of Chicago. When these two mature professionals welcomed their aging and hard-of-hearing father, Mr. S, into their home, they knew that, one way or another, things would be heating up. Yet all three have a fantastic sense of humor. They came to me because they needed a comfortable home for three independent people and three fun-loving dogs. It was immediately apparent to me this wasn’t a simple matter of making a little more space or even of aging in place. This would be a home design for special needs, including auditory, visual and tactile.

One of the twins is hypersensitive to light and must be in the shade; otherwise, she can’t go outdoors. She likes the home very cool; her sister likes it warm. Mr. S likes to blare his television, but one of the twins works from home and needs quiet. Plus, Mr. S just wants his own space, but without feeling isolated. The sisters expressed similar ideas; they would all want to choose to eat dinner together, or not. Did I mention that, while one of the twins is an extrovert, the other is an introvert and needs her privacy?

The family asked me to find ways to make their small circa-1980s tract or “builder” home functional for all of them. Plus, one thing that the twins did agree on was that they hated their front door. Perhaps accentuating the fact that the sisters are often at odds over other aspects of their home environment, the existing house was in an L-shape and the front door was a little bumped-out spot at a 45-degree angle to the two sides of the L!

Well, we revamped the front door, making it more pleasant, providing a sense of entry into the home. We placed a handicap ramp, but one with a gentle, almost imperceptible, rise so that it doesn’t even look like a ramp.

But the big plan for the home was an addition that would include a sunroom off the kitchen, along with a bedroom suite, opening out onto the newly created front porch. Mr. S could sit out there and watch the neighborhood kids play.

French doors inside connect the sunroom to the rest of the house, so it’s easy for him to grab some food or for the whole family to gather for meals and conversation. Other times, the door can be kept closed and the temperature and decibels at just the right levels for everyone. To ensure this, Mr. S even agreed to a technology solution – a wireless headset for television in the evenings so others can sleep.

The mechanical system of the new space is separate, too, so in addition to the choices it allows, it doesn’t tax the existing system or throw it off because of the high amount of solar gain in the sunroom.

I mentioned tactile needs. In looking to the future, we called for a carpet without padding for greater stability when walking; if eventually a wheelchair is needed, that is pre-accommodated. The bathroom is fully accessible, with grab bars and a curbless shower. Throughout the suite, the window controls are easy for arthritic hands; the outlets are higher than usual and the light switches lower … both within easy reach.

We designed the exterior, too. The deck or patio has two different solar orientations, so the family could choose to watch a sunset or a sunrise, enjoy shade or sun ... and a quiet alternative to the streetscape.

Though some of these design elements seem minor or as though they would work on any house, all of this was very conscious.

The design supports freedom, dignity, choice and independence. Freedom to choose where to be, the dignity of having one’s own life and space. Choices of interior or exterior; temperature, sound, and light. Independence because Mr. S can be independent at home in his own suite, which he prefers over assisted living. He feels like he’s in his own private residence. But he can also choose to either fix his own dinner or have dinner with his daughters in this household. The dogs can keep him company during the day and have access to the other part of the house when Jan and Joyce are available.

Three pets, three unique people, and a home design for special needs make for one delightful – and delighted – family.