Universal design is actually quite specific. That’s what architect Chris Greenawalt of Bunker Workshop learned while renovating Amy and Elizabeth Corcoran-Hunt’s apartment in Boston’s South End. Amy, a writer whose legs were almost completely paralyzed by a neurological disease in 2013, recalls when she was measured for her wheelchair: “It was done in great detail, so it fit perfectly.” For their home, the couple wanted a space that was equally tailored to her needs.
When they connected with Greenawalt in 2014, the Corcoran-Hunts and their daughter, Caroline, then two years old, were in the process of relocating from a duplex to a single-floor apartment that promised greater accessibility, with one notable exception: the kitchen.
Closed off and loaded with clunky appliances, the 90-square-foot developer unit was cumbersome for Amy to navigate. “If you maneuver yourself well in a sleekly designed wheelchair, you can get by with a four-by-four-foot-wide turning radius,” she explains. For the hardest-working room in the home, such cramped conditions would not do for the family of three.
The project posed a unique challenge for Greenawalt, who had never before designed for a wheelchair user. To inform his approach, he spent one-on-one time with Amy, prepping meals and doing dishes to identify key areas of frustration. “It became a problem-solving exercise,” he says. “One without universal solutions.”
First, he removed a wall between the kitchen and hallway to improve fluidity of movement. “No more tight turns or having to reverse,” Amy says, beaming. Hollow spaces beneath the sink and bar now enable her to sit facing the counter, instead of having to sidle up parallel to it. New appliances, too, empower her with self-sufficiency: A dishwasher by Fisher & Paykel opens straight out like a drawer, and controls for an InSinkErator garbage disposal and Cifial faucet were repositioned to be within reach while seated.
The upgrades didn’t end with functionality: Greenawalt wanted the kitchen to become a space where Amy would also feel comfortable socializing and spending time. Taking her seated vantage point into account, he clad the undersides of the higher cabinets in marble to improve her view. “It’s a great example of how her unique perspective helped us produce interesting design elements,” says Greenawalt.
Amy can participate in family meals with ease, setting the table and baking cookies with Caroline. “It’s a beautiful place that we can live in exactly as we are,” she says.