Sun, Feb 22, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Universal design makes homes adaptable — except in France

By Elaine Sciolino  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , LAMORLAYE, FRANCE

He would have liked “to have started with a blank canvas,” he said, but having grown up in this area, he wanted to stay, and the high cost of land made building from scratch as expensive as buying a house that he could move into right away. So he bought and renovated an existing structure — a conventional French country-style vacation home. He replaced what he described as traditional appointments with sleek modern detailing and furnishings, and blithely destroyed the center-hall, two-window symmetry of the front-garden facade with a glass wall. He left the large, high-ceilinged living room intact, along with a ground-floor bedroom, but he combined the kitchen and dining room that adjoin the living room on one side, and built an addition on the other with a spa and garage on the ground floor and an open studio above.

Examples of universal design are everywhere. The main kitchen counters are built lower than usual, about 80cm from the ground, an ideal height for children, the elderly, the disabled and just about everyone who is not 200cm tall, Prodel said. Appliances include a Nespresso coffeemaker, which uses easy-to-insert coffee capsules rather than measured grounds, a one-touch Riviera & Bar electric citrus juicer and a Black & Decker electric jar opener. The Scholtes oven allows its user to press a single button to cook a roast chicken, another to bake gateaux — an extreme simplicity of operation that Prodel describes as a sort of “informal” universal design.

The furniture is functional, too. In Prodel’s bedroom, the bed is the same height as his wheelchair, which makes moving between them easier.

Electrical controls for the entire house are within easy reach. The shower area off the bedroom is equipped with a broad sink, which his wheelchair can slide under, and the shower is fitted with a cushiony white folding chair made by the Danish company Pressalit Care.

Another small room has been outfitted with a toilet 50.8cm above floor level, several centimeters higher than normal, so that Prodel can easily transfer himself. In the spa room, super-heated to help Prodel keep his muscles warm and prevent cramping, an IGAT-180 push-button pool lift (made by the US company Aquatic Access) with a Belgian-made harness allows him to lift himself out of his wheelchair and into a 6m-long heated pool. There, he swims and does exercises.

Throughout the house, electrical outlets are 40.6cm above the floor rather than 20.3cm, and switches are about 100cm above the floor, several centimeters lower than usual — heights that are equally easy for Prodel or an able-bodied adult to reach.

Next month, in recognition of the house’s innovations, it will receive the 2009 Universal Design Award for a residence from Universal Design GmbH, a German company that promotes accessibility.

Prodel sees the house as a showcase, he said, and hopes it will influence residential design in France. But he does not see himself as a savior: His consulting firm offers “services to professionals” for offices and commercial and institutional spaces.

“You can’t imagine how many people call me and say, ‘Mr Prodel, my husband is in a wheelchair and I need help.’ I say, ‘Sorry, I don’t work for private persons,’” he said.

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