Home design for disabled vet and service dog tackles accessibility
As part of his final architecture studio class, Mike Blea designed a house for a disabled veteran and his or her service dog. (House rendering by Mike Blea )
When Paul Durbin goes out, Harmony keeps strangers from invading his personal space. When something falls on the ground, she retrieves it.
"I don't like people in my personal space. She makes sure she blocks people from getting too close," said Durbin, who served in the Marine Corps from 1998 to 2002. He was injured during training and now uses arm crutches or a wheelchair to get around.
Harmony is a yellow lab, rescued and trained by Englewood-based Freedom Service Dogs of America .
"I have a tendency of going out more now that I have a service dog," Durbin said. "When I'm out and about going to see my doctors, there's a lot of times when I have to let the dog go ahead or come behind me when I go through a door," Durbin said, describing the too-narrow doors he often encounters. "They are trained to sit right there with us. A lot of times, it will try to go through the door with you at the same time if you haven't pre-emptively given them one of the signals."
That unique dynamic between service dog and master — and how it can translate into the built environment — was the focus of a semester-long architecture design studio at the University of Colorado Denver this past term.
Julee Herdt. an award-winning architect and CU Denver professor, challenged her master's degree students to design a home that was both eco-friendly and accessible not just for a disabled veteran but also his or her canine companion. They worked closely with Durbin and Freedom Service Dogs for advice.
"It's hard to actually modify a house. It's already built," Durbin said. "You've got to think about the doorways, the hallways — are they big enough for a wheelchair or a person on arm crutches, plus a dog?
Herdt wants to change that. She, and the student with the class' highest-rated design, hope to take the project a step further, from the classroom to construction. The two are now seeking grant funding to help actually build the winning design — a simple yet sophisticated one-story house with a net-zero energy impact — for one lucky veteran, his or her family and a service dog.
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Mike Blea with his model of a home for a disabled veteran and their service animal. Blea won the project competition in his graduate-level Architecture Capstone Studio class at the University of Colorado Denver. (Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post )
"There aren't really any homes that look very closely at how the dog works with the person. Usually things are just retrofitted," Herdt said. "We're taking it from the ground up so they can be a better team."
"If the house was to get built, it would really make someone's life a whole lot easier, not just from a standpoint of lowering the cost of bills but also making their day-to-day activities easier,
making it easier to go outside, making it easier to let the dog out, making it easier for the dog to help the service veteran," said Mike Blea, the winning designer and a December graduate of CU Denver.
"This could be a flagship house in the country in terms of universal design."
The home Blea designed features an elegant cantilevered roof; a thick trombe wall (for passive solar heating) interspersed with window-seat nooks; and a green "living" wall.
Everything, from the location of the utility closet to the design of the radiant-floor heating system to the simplified traffic pattern, was devised with physical challenges in mind. An operable garage door opens from an open-plan living area to provide an easy, yet controlled connection to the outdoors.
For the service dog, there is durable, slip-resistant flooring, an easy-to-access outdoor run and dog-friendly light switches. In each room, Blea also tried to create spaces where the dog would be comfortable, but also still be able to keep an eye on its owner (and vice versa).
"The ability to actually talk with Paul and have him give us his views on things, that hands-on learning, it opened up a lot of doors to be creative," Blea said. "He was bringing up a lot of things that we never thought about before."
Herdt and a panel of experts chose Blea's design because of its "beauty, simplicity and demonstrated ease of movement for a disabled vet and service dog," Herdt said. Projects were required to exceed Americans with Disabilities Act standards.
All of the houses were also designed to be scaled down. Ideally, Herdt said, she would love to find a veteran who already has some money lined up for a house, so they can use the extra grant funding to build it even better.
"As designers, we all need to think about how to make buildings easier to use and more beautiful," Herdt said.
Briana Ore, foundation training director for Freedom Service Dogs, worked with the class, as well, and said a home's floor plan, room layout and even the light switches and their placement on the wall can make a difference for their clients.
"Working with as many clients as we work with, I can't tell you how many times we see different housing situations where just a little bit of adjustment would make their lives so much easier," Ore said. " It was really cool to see that built from the ground up."
For the record: Paddle-style light switches are much easier for service dogs to operate than traditional toggle switches. Open, one-story floor plans are also preferred, because they better allow the dog to always stay within eyesight of its owner, Ore said.
"The dogs are good sports, and we can get creative, but there are many instances, if the house had been built differently, it would have been more of a smooth transition for the client and the dog," Ore said.
"You can't just knock everything down and start over. Even if you could, most of our clients can't afford that."
Emilie Rusch: 303-954-2457, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/emilierusch