Visitability is hard to say but easy to use and describes houses built with barrier-free, inclusive or universally accessible areas.
What if there isn’t space or money to build an entire house to be universally accessible? Build it so everyone can be comfortable in main floor rooms and a main floor bedroom suite when visiting.
Builder Rama Mills of G. Crabtree Home Building has a friend who uses a wheelchair. She says her friend finds it “frustrating to drive to friends’ homes, roll up to the front steps, and wait to be carried through the front door. Or have to leave a party because there is not an accessible bathroom.”
Mills promised her friend that when she and business partner Gail Crabtree built their next spec house, they would build it to visitability standards.
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Keeping that promise came pretty soon as two narrow lots with building sites topographically even with the street came up for sale on Herring Boulevard in Northgate Park.
Finding a lot with a building site level to the curb was important, Mills said, because if the land from street to building site isn’t level, it is more expensive to build to universally accessible standards. The aesthetic of the front elevation is also dependent on the lot’s topography, Crabtree said.
Next challenge: find house plans and elevations that fit aesthetically with other houses on the street.
Northgate Park is a fairly eclectic neighborhood with most of the homes having been built during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s (northgateparknc.org/history). The first house Crabtree and Mills built on Herring Boulevard was a two-story, Southern classic with squared columns rising from an accessible front porch.
Not wanting side-by-side twins on the street, Crabtree and Mills called on Anne Abney, who has a master’s degree in architecture from N.C. State University’s College of Design. This school puts a high emphasis on modern architecture and has been at the forefront of universal design.
Abney, who lives in Trinity Park not far from Mills and Crabtree, has worked with the women on other projects over the past two years and found their vision and skill sets complimentary. “I’ve learned a lot from working with Gail and Rama,” Abney said. “They are open to new ideas. Even though the bottom line at times has to be budget, they go out of their way to make good design a priority.”
“Anne’s design input over the past two years has given me exciting opportunities to use new building techniques and broaden the style of houses we’ve been building,” said Crabtree, who started out 30 years ago using building techniques and plans based on those her grandfather, father and uncle had used.
Abney’s design has a consistent architectural language that provides privacy and pushes focus from the front streetscape to a natural landscape of stream and woods in the back. Not having closed hallways also helps push visual interest toward the back, Abney said.
Abney’s design minimizes visual clutter by hiding utilitarian spaces and providing ample cabinetry for maximizing organization. Clean interior lines are enhanced by not having curved surfaces on stair treads, handrails, counters, etc. Baseboards aren’t softened by quarter-round or shoe moldings. Base trim around cabinets is square-cut.
“There is not a rounded surface anywhere aside from the copper stair pickets and the rounded corners of the kitchen’s center island Silestone quartz counter,” Crabtree said.
“I’ve built 400 homes and gotten more compliments from visitors to this house than any other house I’ve built,” Crabtree said. “Then it did cost $10,000 more than other houses this size I’ve built.”