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Dave Regel has built a house he calls "Beyond Barrier Free"

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  • Dave Regel has built a house he calls "Beyond Barrier Free"

    Builder goes 'beyond barrier-free' in Blaine
    Neal Gendler
    Star Tribune√ā¬†Published Aug 24, 2002 BARR24

    Builder Dave Regel says the need for a wheelchair shouldn't be a barrier to living in a home of one's own.

    During the past decade, "accessible" homes have come to account for 60 percent of his all-custom business. The homes are barrier-free: a person in a wheelchair encounters neither thresholds nor doorways too narrow for a wheelchair.

    Dave Regel showed how a wheelchair-bound person can easily use the microwave oven.

    Now Regel has built a house in Blaine that he calls "beyond barrier free" to demonstrate how creative design ideas, innovative technology and construction techniques can provide a person in a wheelchair full use of about 4,500 square feet on two levels -- plus a deck.

    'You don't have to make it look like an institution," he said last week, sitting at a low, center-pedestal poker table in the lower-level recreation room. The house provides wheelchair access to every room, but there's more -- the TV and other appliances, as well as the lights, windows and blinds, all operate by voice command. The house's adaptive features are all but invisible from the outside, and many inside can escape notice.

    There's much need for such homes, and not just for older people.

    "There are younger people with many kinds of functional disabilities who need housing with accessibility features -- many people of all ages who've had accidents," said Diane Sprague, housing policy specialist at the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency. Some families have a child born with a disability, "and after a certain age, the family needs to accommodate the child better in the household," she said.

    Dave Regel has built a house he calls "Beyond Barrier Free."

    Many people needing such homes have "attempted to make do with conventional design as best as possible," she said. "Those with upper incomes may be able to afford highly customized homes, but for more moderate-income people it may be a challenge." The need is most acute for people of low to moderate income -- people who, if able-bodied, might buy attached housing but can't because so much of it is multilevel, she said.

    Mike Bjerkesett is president of the National Handicap Housing Institute, a New Brighton organization that owns and manages 11 accessible apartment buildings.

    He said a market study for a 21-unit, accessible, subsidized apartment complex being built in Mounds View found that the city of 12,734 inhabitants had 1,257 physically disabled people. Of those, "203 are mobility-impaired and have a self-care limitation, meaning they need some kind of assistance to live independently," he said. In Ramsey County, census data showed 50,425 physically disabled people, of whom 10,323 were mobility-impaired, he said.

    "Most people with the financial resources opt to buy a house, whether they buy one designed for them or that needs to be adapted," said Bjerkesett, who has used a wheelchair for several decades since an accident.. But adapting means making compromises, he added. "It's frequently impossible to do right" because you're dealing with an existing structure.

    For example, adding a ramp gives access to a door, but "if you're designing something from ground up, you just make [the door] at grade level," he said. One of the problems is that many people don't know what's available to make a house more workable. "That's one of the good things Dave [Regel] is doing," Bjerkesett said. But even at a simpler level, "there just aren't that many builders out there doing this."

    Voice-activated commands can be transmitted through a headset and cordless telephone.

    Demonstrating the possibilities

    Regel normally builds 14 to 20 custom-designed homes a year for $300,000 and up. The demonstration house is listed for $649,560, and Regel admits it might take time to sell.

    "The object is not to go out and sell $650,000 homes -- it's to let [people] know what's available," he said. "What you're seeing in this house is a lot of features combined . . . to show what can be done. Some people may need only some of these features." For example, not everyone can afford a $15,000 lift -- or will need it -- "but we can put the pit in place so we can add it."

    The pit is a near-square shallow depression at the base of the stairs. The lift platform fits inside so the wheelchair can roll off level to the floor. Until a lift is needed, the spot can be filled and finished like the rest of the floor.
    One of the centerpieces of Dave Regel's house is the ceiling lift.

    Other special features of the Blaine house include extra-wide halls; 3-foot-wide doorways with "disappearing" hinges; a deck with wheelchair access from the front door, the eating area and the garage; a roll-through front closet and roll-in bedroom closets with shelves and hooks at wheelchair height (the bedrooms even have low-mounted tie racks); appliances such as a microwave, electric cooktop and side-opening oven at wheelchair-accessible level; and large kitchen drawers instead of shelves.

    Other conveniences at heights for wheelchair use include shelves in the pantry (which is big enough for a wheelchair to turn around inside); roll-beneath bathroom sinks with detachable spouts; a barrier-free shower with a detachable shower head; a central vacuum system with outlets in every room, and lowered, front-loading washer and dryer.

    The three-bay garage is extra wide and extra high for adapted vans and has one extra-long bay for a very large van. There's a wheelchair-level workbench and a place to wash winter slush off a wheelchair.

    Special features

    Regel reserves an extra measure of pride for two more features. One is a "ceiling lift," a sort of body sling on a track; it can lift and carry a person from the master bedroom into the adjoining master bath. There, a hand-operated turntable connects tracks to the whirlpool bath or the toilet.

    The device, which is battery-powered and user-operated by a hand-held control, also can lower a person to the floor for exercise. With Regel's specially reinforced ceiling, the system can hold more than 400 pounds and the track's path can be altered.

    The other feature is the house's electronic systems: "Category 5" telephone and Ethernet lines for computers and cable TV outlets linked into networks through accessible-height hubs in the basement; security cameras, including one that shows the front door on every TV when the doorbell rings, and the voice-operated control that runs everything from the gas fireplace to the security system, and even provides weather forecasts and stock prices.

    Some windows can detect rain and shut themselves. Easy-use rocker-style lights switches are installed at lower heights. Outlets are higher than normal so a person can use them while sitting.

    Regel's work with advocates of the disabled has shown him there's a large need for adapted homes, "and there aren't a lot of builders working with these people because it takes a lot of time. This is something you have to design around the individual."

    Bjerkesett visited the house Monday and said he was "quite impressed. It's definitely state of the art. [Regel] put a lot of thought into it." He said the house is as good as any accessible house he's visited, and the technology is "way ahead of anything I've seen before.

    "But it's the whole package that makes it as good as it is," Bjerkesett said. "He's thought about access from the front door and the garage without a ramp.

    He's thought about circulation . . . you flow through that house almost effortlessly. And it's also a beautiful house," one that could be sold to anybody.

    Accessibility costs vary

    The extra cost varies with the number of features. Regel estimates that an accessible house costs an extra 14 to 16 percent. The five homes Bjerkesett has built in the past 34 years have cost less than 10 percent extra.

    "My experience is that any builder will do what you ask," Bjerkesett said. "A lot of it's information; Dave obviously has a lot of this in his head that most builders don't have." He said builders shouldn't be expected to build such houses speculatively, because they "have to have the right house for the right person at the right time."

    The need for accessibility will be increasing significantly, because many more seniors will want to remain in community housing and avoid institutionalization. "They may need to adapt their present home or move to a home with more-accessible features," Sprague said.

    But it's not only older people who need such features; medical advances can save lives that previously would have been lost to disease or damage. "We have many more infants who previously might have died who are surviving with disabilities," she said.

    Regel spent two years designing the demonstration home, finding components for it and, with a computer-expert friend, creating the voice system.

    "Many people say they'll build accessible homes, but a good deal of knowledge is needed in order to so properly," he said. "I've gone into homes builders have done that are supposed to be accessible, but they didn't make the bathroom functional for the person in the wheelchair or they didn't make the cabinets so the people's feet wouldn't hit. They put ramps on them when they weren't needed," making it more difficult than necessary for someone to roll into and out of the house.

    Aiding independence

    Regel's interest in building for the disabled grew from six years as a medical corpsman in the Navy, where at port stops, he saw levels of poverty and disability he'd never imagined. He later became a real-estate agent and was involved in a Jaycee program that helped the disabled and the elderly; he saw people with their independence limited by ill-fitting surroundings.

    He began selling houses for builders, then started building with an eye toward "giving people what they like in their homes -- disabled or not," he said.

    His first accessible house was built for a couple who came to one of his regular models. The wife had multiple sclerosis. They lived in a suburban house remodeled to supposedly make it accessible, "but she couldn't even get into the bathroom in her wheelchair," he said. "She had to crawl to the toilet, which is very humiliating." The remodeler had widened the bathroom doorway, "but didn't do anything with the vanity; it was too large to get the wheelchair in." She couldn't use the kitchen because it was too small for her to turn around in, he said.

    He built the couple a totally accessible townhouse. "They could roll in from the front door and from the garage. They could roll out to the deck," he said. The wife was able to use the microwave, roll under the counter to do dishes and have problem-free access to the refrigerator and the oven's side-opening door.

    "It took a lot of looking to find some of these things," Regel said. Finding a side-open oven supplier took seven months, and it took years to find a window that can be opened with one lever. One research method was basic: "I rolled around in a wheelchair to get an idea of what's needed," Regel said.

    Some of these efforts might become commonplace as more builders follow a movement called universal design, "which is concerned with making many areas of life . . . better fit the needs of a wider range of the population," Sprague said. Three main features of universal design are stepless entries, wide doorways and open floor plans, with "all important living features on the main level." Sprague said the additional cost for such features is small.

    Regel said it's possible that demand could increase until he's only building accessible homes, because the need is great and few builders are meeting it.

    "If you see someone who comes from a place where they couldn't do anything and now they can, their self-esteem is built up and they start challenging themselves to do more. That's very, very rewarding -- more than any money you make."

  • #2
    Most of us can only dream about a house like this!