Architect discusses 'The Accessible Home’

By Jason Harris - Staff Writer
Salem - posted Mon., Nov. 26, 2012
'The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages and Abilities.' Image courtesy of Better World Books. - Contributed Photo

Architect and author Deborah Pierce was getting ready to talk about "The Accessible Home" at the Salem Free Public Library on Nov. 29.
Pierce said she has always been interested in buildings, in how places make people feel and what places are nice to be in. She said that when her friends were making ashtrays in ceramics class in school, she was making little houses. Instead of playing with dolls, she was building cottages for them.

Her favorite architect at the moment is Pritzker Prize-winner Renzo Paino, who designed the California Academy of Sciences and the addition to the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston. “I just like his work,” Pierce said about Paino. “It’s not about his sensibility, but the way light and space create an experience. I do think it informs my work.”

Pierce recalled the time she heard Louis Kahn talk about going up a stairway, and how he wished for a bigger landing, then a window, then a bench to sit on as he looked out the window. Pierce said Kahn had this whole sense about architecture creating a sequence of experiences, which is how she comes to architecture.

“For me, it’s spiritual," Pierce said about architecture. "It’s about how we move through spaces, and what kind of experiences we have as we do that. I think architecture has a lot to say about how we experience the world.”

Her first book, "The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages and Abilities," was published last month. She said she wishes this type of book had been available when she was designing a house for a family whose child had cerebral palsy. “There were books about accessibility, but none of them were really about the family dynamic, the spaces between rooms, the way a house functions for the people who live there,” she said. “I wanted a book to really help me understand how disability affects people in a variety of ways that includes the social environment as well as the physical environment.”

Pierce wants people to be aware that our environment doesn’t deal with disabilities. She believes that part of the problem is that architects, homeowners and building owners are in denial about disabilities. They think it will never happen to them, yet a disability happens to a quarter of the population, Pierce said.

"Homes should be made so people can feel safe and not cause a disability," she said. “I’m really trying to change the conversation about accessibility and disabilities and universal design in a way that’s more approachable.”

People will see this new universal design as more spacious and comfortable when they look at it, Pierce said. The first thing people will say is that it’s beautiful, then they will notice how accessible it is. “When accessibility improvements are integrated into the design rather then tacked on, they create a kind of home everybody wants to live in,” she said.

She wants to raise the bar on people’s expectations of their own homes so that they can focus on their home’s usability and their own happiness. “I define accessibility pretty broadly,” Pierce said. “I say accessibility is about living with a disability, but it’s also about making homes that are more usable and more functional and that are tailored to the homeowner. The accessible home is comfortable on levels that people may not even be thinking about.”

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