Thursday, September 04, 2008

Conflict of Interests

I'm very interested in the Small Space Living idea. I do think there's something to be said for a design aesthetic that can produce livable spaces that don't contribute to urban sprawl, for instance, or a workspace that can be more worn than used, if you get my drift.

However, I find I really can't endorse a lot of small-space projects for one simple fact: Almost none of them are accessible, let alone handicap-friendly.

Yes, if you want to reduce the amount of square footage a structure's footprint uses, up is a great direction in which to build. But even I, who am pretty able-bodied by the standards of non-able-bodied people, am really really not enthused about the prospect of having to climb a ladder to go to bed at night, because the designer of my tiny space has thoughtfully created a "sleeping loft." Assuming that the entire bedroom space is supposed to be in such a loft, I can't even fathom trying to, oh, say, haul a laundry bag up there. (Has any loft-happy designer ever thought to include a dumbwaiter?) Let alone trying to get up and down between bed and bathroom when I'm sick, for instance.

Also, I don't think I've ever seen a tiny space that's wheelchair-accessible, let alone crutches-friendly, owing to narrowness. I realise that smallness is a goal here, but my counterargument is, I guess, that there are lots of things about the small-space living design aesthetic and movement that could be used to enhance handicap-friendliness and wheelchair accessibility in spaces (such as making sure everything was within easy reach, providing easier-to-manipulate and well-designed furniture and fixtures, making housework easier for disabled people, and maximising space and design and function considerations to provide useful, safe, and accessible spaces for handicapped people).

I mean, really, can you imagine how well the small-space living movement's same care and attention to detail and willingness to privilege function over tradition would work for desgning handicap-friendly bathrooms?

My suggestions for creating better small spaces for disabled people would be:

  • Pay attention to the different ergonomic needs of people with disabilities. Things like grab rails, bath seats, level access, wider doorways and hallways, placement of fixtures and outlets, heights of countertops and shelves become really important.

  • Think outside the "up." An able-bodied person might be just fine using a library ladder or a ladder to a sleeping loft or using a stepladder to access a high shelf. A walking disabled person, maybe not, and for a wheelchair user, it's impossible.

  • Use different dimensions. Change your perspective to include different approaches for different levels of mobility. For example, instead of designing in a tall, steep staircase, try to find a way to design in a short, wide staircase. Instead of designing a tall counter with drawers underneath, try designing a counter with nesting pull-out countertop-type tables (for use by seated or wheelchair-using cooks), as shown here.

  • Get friendly with the floor. Use the spaces along the baseboards, rather than around the crown mouldings.

  • Sacrifice. Yeah, an accessible building isn't going to be as perfectly small as something designed to be used by able-bodied people. For one thing, you're probably going to have to trade off height for width. But on the other hand, that sacrifice will probably pay off, especially when the current crop of temporarily able-bodied tiny space fans start getting older.

A Small Accessible Spaces Linkography

Cool House Plans with handicap-friendly house plans.
The Accessible Kitchen: A site with design information for creating barrier-free kitchens.

Accessible Housing By Design (scroll down to "Accessible Housing") -- From the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, this section covers home automation, lifts and residential elevators, kitchens, bathrooms, appliances, residential hoists and ceiling lifts, and ramps. (This is a really excellent set of guidelines, with pictures and diagrams.)
HowTo Library -- Accessibility from Bob Vila.


Anonymous Rustin H. Wright said...

Sadly, when it comes to likely priorities, I need to kinda disagree with you here. You know that I *love* dumbwaiters and that, as I sit here with my throbbing elevated leg, I know what it's like to have diminished options. But in my experience, many of the microhouse designs, including the cabin I've been pushing for legalization here in Portland, are constrained more than anything else by the need for an absolutely minimal footprint. And when footprint must be minimized, things go up.

In the case of my cabin design, the whole point is to get as close as possible to fitting in the legal as-of-right limit for structures of two hundred square feet or less. In the case of many of the minihouses I've seen, they're designed to either fit on the back of a vehicle per se which limits width to ten feet at most, or to be built out of standard shipping containers, all of which have internal widths of eight feet.

There are exceptions. I've long played with variations on bonding rigid material like plywood to tatami mats, building floor of these mats on a frame raised about eighteen inches from the underlayment, and then using that space below the floor as storage. Or simply, as I did years ago, building a floor of loose wide boards, then raising those boards onto a frame and getting the same result. I think that's there's still a lot of room for improvement in things like yurt design and things like, as you saw in my old apartment, building storage nooks into things like glass block dividers. So the time will come and when it does, I agree that there are many promising options. The simple decision to commit to having most seating on or close to floor height, as Japanese design has, changes everything.

But for the next few years I think that we need to expect that most designers will be busy going for the obvious wins from footprint-minimizing approaches and if we want better, well, we'll just have to design it ourselves, won't we? ;->

8:46 PM  
Blogger Interrobang said...

Okay, yeah, I get that. Thing is, I'd really like someone in the movement to redefine "absolutely minimal footprint" to include "accessible" as part of the parameters that define "minimal." You know, like what's the minimal amount of workable space we need to create a livable space for a walking disabled person? How about a person on crutches? How about a person in a wheelchair?

The Japanese already do this really well, actually. Aside from that the table in this image is probably going to be the wrong height for someone in a wheelchair, and that they're not likely to be sitting on the cushions, there is nothing in that shot that isn't wheelchair-accessible. Even the doors are wider than the standard Western doors...

This is my call to arms to the movement -- I want to piss someone off enough that they actually decide to do something about it.

12:45 AM  

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