We are adapting our house to make sure it works for Ben. We have moved out and have so far paid builders thousands of pounds to rip things apart and make a perfectly good house look like it’s been hit by a natural disaster.
(Photo – what will be the lift, lift lobby and therapy/play room)
It’s a big, disruptive, expensive construction project of the kind we (hopefully) will only do once. We plan to move back in to the house next year and then never move again. Or at least not until the house doesn’t suit Ben any more, which we hope won’t be for an extremely long time.
This kind of project throws up a host of issues on every level from extremely detailed (what kind of sockets?) to big questions about the way we want to live our lives. Decisions about designing your family house go to the core of who you are and how you live (or want to live). I’m an architect and these are the issues that first drew me to architecture: how do buildings reflect who we are as people, what we care about and what we do day-to-day. This stuff is deeply personal and others in the same situation would make different decisions. We are extremely privileged to be in a position to be able to craft our house so carefully.
(Photo – hole for the lift in what was the kitchen)
Most buildings in the world are inaccessible to Ben but we can create a little island of utopian level access, where he can go (almost) everywhere and everything is designed to make all of our lives as easy as possible.
But how do you adapt a house for a disabled person who is currently six years old but will hopefully still be living there when they are twenty six?
How to you make a house perfect for the disabled child, whilst not compromising the personality of the property and making it a house for our whole family?
Should we compromise on the kind of house we want to live in to make it disability-friendly? Is it possible to have have a house that works perfectly for a wheelchair user but that isn’t the first thing you notice?
There are two principles that we have had from the beginning: the house needs to feel like a family house, specifically OUR family house with all of the characteristics it would have had if Ben wasn’t disabled; and the house needs to work perfectly for Ben and enable social connections for him – between family and with visitors. We are currently hyper-aware of some of the downsides of being in a house that hasn’t been specifically adapted. It’s getting harder to give Ben a bath, and even small changes in level get harder to get his wheelchair over as he gets heavier. Because it’s less easy to carry him, Ben rarely comes upstairs to our bedroom or to Max’s room.
If you go to as many adapted or accessible properties as I do, you’ll realise that ‘experts’ are often expert in how to make a house work for a wheelchair user and that isn’t the same thing as making a home for all of the members of the family in it. The cheapest and easiest way to adapt houses is often to tack an extension on to the back. This makes lots of sense, except it often involves siblings and parents sleeping upstairs and the disabled child never going to their bedrooms. If, like Ben, the child has carers then you can end up with unofficial zones within the house where the disabled person and carers spend most time in particular parts of the house and there’s not enough crossover with other members of the family.
(Photo – widened doorway)
Ben will be at the centre of our house, literally. There are three floors, and his bedroom will remain on the first floor. We will all pop in and out, or wander past, his room all the time. It also means we, as parents, remain totally involved in every aspect of his life. Even if there are days when carers are spending most time with him, we are there in the background interfering and suggesting, as is the prerogative of a parent. This will be facilitated by a through-floor lift that will take Ben up to his bedroom, but also further up to our bedroom and Max and Molly’s.
(Photo – Ben’s bedroom)
Downstairs we will have normal reception rooms (one for family-only since we so often have carers in our house now) with wide doorways, a lift lobby big enough to turn a massive wheelchair and level (or near level) floor finishes. Not a single step on the ground floor. One should not underestimate what a feat this will be involving much chat about thresholds, demolishing a conservatory and building a new dining room. We will have a patio on the same level as the kitchen and dining room, which will ramp down to the garden. Ben will use the same doors as all of us and it should be a mere matter of pushing him where he wants to go, without bumping over ledges and going through alternative doors. The rooms are big enough that when Ben is in even bigger wheelchairs we will still be able to get round him. There will be enough room around the dining table that he should be able to sit anywhere, not just in the one spot that means we can still walk past.
(Photos – demolished conservatory, building new dining room)
The house will have pieces of specialist equipment, at vast expense, though actually these aren’t as numerous as I anticipated. You don’t need that much stuff if the whole design of the house is built around the idea of a wheelchair being able to get everywhere. The lift is a massive thing (physically and in expense) but a simple idea. There will be track hoists mounted on the ceilings of four rooms (which will mean Ben can be lifted in a sling between wheelchair and bed, for example, rather than being lifted by us). There will be changing facilities on two floors. And there will be a bath.
(Photo – what will be Ben’s bathroom)
The bath has the subject of much conversation. It is, apparently, easier to shower people in wheelchairs. Easier for carers that is. But we generally operate on the basis of what Ben likes and needs, rather than what suits others. The boy loves baths, so we need a bath. And if that’s a whacking great big thing that goes up and down, needs the floor to be strengthened and a new heating system to produce sufficient hot water, so be it. It will be in a bathroom with two doors – one straight in to Ben’s room so he can go bath-to-bed in one carer-friendly straight line, and one on to the landing that leads to his brothers and sisters bedroom. Because the bath is essentially just a really expensive bath and so it will be the bathroom for all the kids.
We are lucky to be able to ask ourselves how we want our family to work, and therefore how we want our house to facilitate that, and to have the opportunity to alter the fabric of the building accordingly. It is all very exciting but it feels like a huge responsibility – like all construction projects, we’ll only get to do this once and we need to get it right.
(Photo – looking up three stories of the house through the hole made for the lift)
A friend of mine joked that once we have adapted our houses our kids will be able to visit each other, if not anywhere else. It’s not really a joke – as Ben gets bigger and his wheelchair gets heavier it is becoming harder for us to go to other people’s houses with him and we can’t visit places that don’t have disabled access. So the political becomes personal – we want to compensate for the world remaining inaccessible by making our house a truly welcoming place for Ben and his friends.