When Jean-Yves Prodel, who lives alone and uses a wheelchair, bought a 20-year-old house in this town just north of Paris in 2005, he hired an architect to remake it following the principles of universal design.
As Prodel soon discovered, however, his architect had no idea what that meant; moreover, he made Prodel feel like a bit of an idiot.
“I told him I needed the floors to be flat everywhere — into the shower, out to the patio, from room to room,” Prodel said, recalling the day they first toured the house together. “He kept saying, ‘It’s impossible — no, it’s not possible.’ It was the start of a big nightmare, a really big nightmare.”
The arguments went on for months, and Stephane Du Bois, a Belgian technician who was installing an automated-lighting system in the house, couldn’t help overhearing them. One day, after the architect left, he decided to intervene. He told Prodel that he was an architect himself and would be happy to take over the job.
Four years later, the house is still a work in progress. But Prodel, who suffers from a rare genetic disease called Werdnig-Hoffmann that causes spinal muscular atrophy and has forced him to spend much of his 44 years in a wheelchair, is able to live in the house comfortably.
“In France, if you say ‘universal design,’ people are totally lost,” said Prodel, who started a universal design consulting firm of his own around the time he bought the house.
Most French designers and architects, he added, have little tolerance for the concept, which holds that products and buildings should be usable by everyone, without requiring glaring adaptations to accommodate physical differences.
Japan and the Scandinavian countries, Prodel said, have long been at the forefront of universal design, a movement conceived in the US in the late 1980s in response to the stigma attached to design for people with disabilities. Norway has even incorporated the concept into its anti-discrimination legislation.
A number of other European countries, too, are now starting to invest in the concept, but “architects in France think they know everything,” Prodel said. “As a result, we’re 20 years behind here.”
Prodel began to show signs of Werdnig-Hoffmann disease when he was two and was suddenly unable to walk properly. Today, he is paralyzed below the waist and has limited strength in his arms and hands.
Living in a country that is not disability-friendly has not always been easy. As a business student in Montpellier after high school, Prodel had to rely on classmates to carry him and his wheelchair up and down the stairs.
In 1989, however, he enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as an undergraduate. There, he discovered that a disability-friendly home did not have to look institutional. His room was equipped and laid out for someone in a wheelchair, he said, yet “it looked like a regular student’s dorm room.
“Compared to a French university, where they have nothing, it was a dream,” he said.
Years later, when he began planning his renovation project, he treated it as both an intellectual and a living experiment in the possibilities of universal design. Although he was used to sharing his home — he had been married for seven years to his onetime physical therapist, and was living part time with a woman when the project began — he set out to make a place that he, or anyone else, could easily navigate alone.