Wednesday, September 23, 2009


[ALAN'S NOTE: this piece represents my first rejection from an editor. the assignment was to do an interview, and the piece came out as a profile. a fine distinction, it seemed to me...]

“We want these people to enjoy their homes. That’s what we’re all about.” Even if we give them things they are not even aware of.

So says David DiSpirito of Gloucester, VA, a Certified Professional Building Designer who specializes in universal and accessible design. David has earned a solid reputation as the go-to guy in his region, sought out by builders, people with special needs, and a conventional range of clients seeking design services for new homes and remodeling.

This story begins some 40 years ago, on Long Island, NY. David grew up very close to his two young cousins who suffered from muscular dystrophy, where he could see first hand the challenges people with disabilities face even with the simplest of tasks.

“It was fun to do wheelies in the wheel chair, but I could just get up and walk away. Of course, the chair wouldn’t fit through the bathroom door, and I remember how humiliating it was for the boys to be carried to the toilet by their parents.” Those memories, of the difficulty and embarrassment of struggling to manage the most basic human needs, stuck with David, and molded the approach to his practice.

However, the path he took to reach this point—which will seem so logical in retrospect—did not unfold in a straight line.

David’s minor in college was in architectural design, but initially, his ambition was to become a Mechanical Engineer. He got some hands-on construction experience, working summers, helping his father on some light remodeling projects and new home construction. One day, his father took a set of his drawings for a material estimate to a local lumberyard which also offered free house plans to customers who purchased their framing and trim packs. David “auditioned” with a set of plans—and that marked the beginning of his career, drafting house plans—“on the boards,” as David refers to manual drafting.

In the late 80’s, after a stint working for a registered architect, David took a position as an energy specialist at the Long Island Lighting Company. At the time, LILCO was under a state mandate to develop ways to conserve energy use in homes. David was doing energy audits, 20 years before it became a buzzword. He gained valuable insight working around experimental energy efficient homes, comparing the performance of strategies such as super insulation and passive solar design—radical approaches in that time and context, but rapidly becoming accepted as greenbuilding becomes mainstream. Because of this experience, many of the homes David designs are as much as 30% more efficient than required by code.

In 1990, David was recruited by Newport News Shipbuilding, where he took a position designing machinery and components for Seawolf class submarines and other naval vessels. He spent nearly seven years there, honing his problem solving and computer drafting skills, and doing residential design—including plans for his own house—on the side.

Not long after the birth of his first daughter in 1995, David—dissatisfied with the quality of available daycare—decided to take on a new career—that of a full-time father. This decision gave him the opportunity to do more free-lance design work. With a few commissions lined up, and some encouragement from local builders, David bought a computer and established Homesite, Inc.

“It was a culmination,” explains David, of his varied experiences—in home construction, energy systems, computer drafting, and problems solving—that led to the success of his new venture.

David refers to his specialty as “Universal and Accessible Design.”

He elaborates: “You find that when you study the material, that there are no consistent sets of terms and definitions. There’s “accessibility,” as defined by the ADA—it’s the gold standard; the one we aspire to even for residential work.”

There’s also “barrier free,” “visitablity,” “universal” design, and of course, the concept “aging in place.” There is great overlap among these; each approach includes many of the same concepts and practices, but there are some distinctions.

Universal design refers to creating space that can be used and enjoyed by people with the widest possible range of abilities. David advocates the principles formulated by the North Carolina State University Center for Universal Design, which have been widely adopted—in fact, they are an essential part of the curriculum for the NAHB Certified Aging In-Place Specialist (CAPS) program. [see sidebar based on]

Accessible design more specifically addresses the needs of people with disabilities. In the context of the ADA, it can refer back to legal and technical requirements found in the ADAAG—The Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines. This is a federal mandate that regulates all manner of accommodations in public sector facilities—including multi-family residences as well as places of employment. Barrier-free design for residential work is similar to accessible design, but doesn’t have the legal compulsion afforded to the ADA. In the residential world, Barrier-free and Accessible design are many times used interchangeably.

Visitablity is a subset of Universal Design, in which a guest of limited abilities can enter, occupy, and enjoy a portion of a residence and its essential amenities, but not necessarily all spaces in the building.

Aging In-place is an extension of Universal Design emphasizing remaining in one's home safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age, income, or ability level. Aging In-Place allows the homeowner to live in a familiar environment throughout their maturing years, and to enjoy the familiar daily routines and the special events that make life worth living.

The gold standard that David aspires to is ANSI A117.1, which is the set of building standards that underpin the ADAAG. This is the working document that defines clearances, heights, and related criteria for doors, hallways, bathrooms, ramps, handrails, signage, and other building features which otherwise might be barriers or obstacles to people with disabilities.

But in his practice, David takes things beyond minimum standards. For example, ANSI A117.1 requires that door openings must be at least 32” wide in the clear—which therefore effectively requires a 34” or 36” wide door. But a wide door is very difficult for a person using a walker to negotiate. The person first must release his grasp, and while maintaining balance with the other hand, push the door open. But his reach is limited—he must take another step forward, releasing his grasp again to push the door open farther, and so on. The risk of falling increases accordingly.

So David, when given the opportunity, will provide a pair of 18” doors instead. “It’s accessible—and—it’s elegant.”

This approach is the key to David’s success in this field, and “elegantly accessible” is his slogan. Accessible features can be a hard sell. Able-bodied people have a disinclination to imagine themselves as disabled—obviously accessible details can be perceived as a threatening reminder of vulnerability, weakness, and ultimately, mortality. But when these features are given an elegant interpretation, “It’s a selling point. People see the value of it.”

Who wouldn’t appreciate a wider hallway? They are included in a DiSpirito home, whether you ask for it or not. Who doesn’t like the idea of a deeper closet? David makes them deep enough—and stacks them over free space below—so that if needed in the future, they can become a shaft for a small elevator system. The floor is framed so that by cutting the flooring and ceiling below, and removing a few joist hangers, the rough opening is ready to go. “The extra cost is trivial,” says David, “basically it’s for a couple of microlam beams set in the wall to bolt the track to.”

By contrast, David designed an elevator recently for a client who developed a degenerative nervous system condition. “There was absolutely no place inside the house where an elevator would fit. So we had to build an addition on the back of the house. It was a tiny addition, no larger than the cab and surround, but it still needed all the components of full scale addition—foundation, walls, and roof.” What could have done for a few hundred dollars—if planned for up front—cost something like $35,000.

David has included elevators in the last three houses he designed. An able-bodied owner loves it—he travels frequently, so he packs his luggage in the bedroom, and sends it downstairs in the cab. (He walks down the stairs down to retrieve them.)

Other features are welcome by able-bodied owners, like large, curbless showers, and kitchen counters at various heights. A favorite is raising the dishwasher on a one-foot high platform. Low counters can be used as desks, or for kneading bread dough—allowing home bakers to extend their arms and use the weight of their shoulders to work the dough.

In 2006, David enrolled in the NAHB CAPS program, to earn his Aging In Place certification. “I could have taught the design portion of the class, but the sensitivity training was invaluable.” In this phase, participants must “disable” themselves in various ways. For instance, to understand what a patient with extreme arthritis might deal with, David had to grasp a tennis ball, place a sock over the hand, and then try to grip or manipulate everyday objects. He and other participants got in wheelchairs and maneuvered through the building where the class was held. Even though the building was ADA compliant, it was still a great challenge for people who were essentially able bodied.

The experience enhanced David’s insight into the challenges faced by the disabled, where the proper swing of a bathroom door or the precise alignment of a grab bar might mean the difference between independence for a senior, and surrendering to a nursing home. David recently completed a project for an MS patient, who at that point was bedridden and completely dependent on others for every basic need. He designed a system of overhead track and mechanical hoists “that enabled the woman to get out of bed, move to the shower, then into her closet, get dressed, and into a wheel chair, and out of the house—all by herself.”

It’s been a full circle, then, for David, from the kid doing wheelies in his cousins’ wheelchair, to the one who can liberate a person from her devastating disabilities.

And do it with elegance.

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