TAMPA — It's the prettiest house on the block near Busch Gardens, with its craftsman styling and bright red front door. • It's also designed to be the last house you'll ever have to buy, because it's equipped with a host of features to make life easier as the owners age. Wheelchair? Walker? Hearing impairment? Arthritic wrists? No problem. • Yet there's nothing institutional about it. No jury-rigged ramps. No ugly grab bars. The pot-filling faucet over the range is a desirable feature in upscale kitchens. Who wouldn't love a closet rod that pulls down for easy access, then flips back out of the way? • And the house is affordably priced, starting at $131,900 for a 1,200-square-foot home, excluding the homesite. • "It's not a lot of house, but there's a lot of house in it," says builder Mike Shrenk, managing partner of New Millennial Homes in Tampa. The house — he calls it the "Freedom Home" — was inspired by the sight of disabled veterans coming home from the war.
"It really hit me," he said. "These are people who gave of themselves." New to functioning in wheelchairs, they have their homes retrofitted, "but they still don't work, and the residents don't know why."
Most homes that have been remodeled to accommodate people with disabilities "make them more disabled instead of enhancing their lives. Your home should give you freedom instead of disabling you more."
Shrenk was referring to doorways too narrow to accommodate a wheelchair, carpeting or vinyl flooring that quickly develops wheel ruts, bathrooms that are hard to negotiate in a wheelchair, kitchen counters that are too high, ranges and sinks that can't be used from a sitting position, even light switches and electrical outlets that are too high or too low for someone in a chair to reach easily.
Those are concerns not just of disabled veterans, he points out, "but of all of us as we age in place." (His 88-year-old mother lives with him.)
Aging baby boomers start to worry about where they, and their parents, will live when it becomes too hard to take the stairs and a longtime home seems to make life harder rather than easier.
Architect Dan Waibel agreed. "We like to think of it as a life- span house," he said. "As we move into the second part of our lives, we ask: Where will we move next?"
It's more than just installing blocking for grab bars in the shower.
Based in reality
Shrenk and his design team worked with Wally Dutcher of St. Petersburg, a longtime advocate for the disabled who has been a paraplegic since a diving accident in 1956.
"If there's one thing Wally taught me, it's this: If it looks medicinal, it isn't marketable," Shrenk said. No one wants to live in a house that looks like a rehab facility.
Dutcher also taught the builder team things that only someone using a wheelchair would know, things that all the guidelines and rules don't tell you:
How much space you need to back up and turn around. What a really accessible bathroom is like — how the toilet should be oriented for easiest access, how to use shower curtains to provide privacy to both the roll-in shower and toilet areas, how to make the room drain properly.
It was Dutcher who suggested engineered wood floors, which are easy to roll on and attractive. He recommended building the structural support into the ceiling of the master bedroom so an overhead lift can be added if needed — for a disabled person, or to assist someone who breaks a hip, a concern for older people with osteoporosis.
The Freedom Home incorporates energy-smart, low-maintenance, money-saving features, including Icynene foam insulation in the attic (so the temperature there will never be more than 10 degrees warmer than the conditioned space); double-glazed, low-E windows; a heat pump that exceeds code minimum; and a programmable thermostat. All the appliances are Energy Star-rated to use less electricity than is standard.
The home is built of concrete block filled with expandable foam and is rated to withstand winds in excess of 130 mph, Shrenk said.
Keeping costs down
Affordability is key in the disabled community, said Sandy Sroka, Hillsborough County's liaison for Americans with Disabilities Act Affairs. She has visited the Freedom Home, and said Shrenk "really made an effort to provide accessibility throughout the home . . . within an affordable price range, and it's hard to find one, let alone both."
Shrenk estimates the house costs 15 percent more than a comparably sized house that's not accessible. "If it's too expensive, who can afford it?" he asked.
Ben Ritter, government relations director of the Florida Gulf Coast chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, says kitchens and baths are the two most expensive rooms to retrofit. "You can spend more than $25,000 doing those two rooms," said Ritter, who is also co-chairman of the Tampa Mayor's Alliance for Persons with Disabilities.
"I was impressed with the attention to accessibility details you don't normally see in new construction," such as the spacious baths and the workable kitchen. "This house is as accessible and comfortable as possible given the small number of square feet."
Shrenk says he has been able to hold costs down by learning to build quickly but to do it right the first time so there are no costly delays or do-overs. "Time is money. That's the key factor in affordability," he said. His crews built this house in 45 days instead of the typical 90.
Shrenk hopes to license the copyrighted house plans nationally and is prepared to build homes as large as 3,200 square feet. "We started with the affordable because that's where the biggest need is and it's tougher to do," he said.
He started work June 20 on a second Freedom Home, at 2937 Third Ave. S in St. Petersburg, for which the city is providing the financing. That house is also on a 45-day fast track.
"I was reading about our men and women doing something for our country, leaving whole and coming back disabled," Shrenk said. "And I talked with Wally, who's been disabled 52 years and knows what's right and wrong in terms of design work."
The result, Shrenk said, is "a house that works for them."
Judy Stark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8446.