Image: Will Austin

Picture a house. Just an average house. A few steps lead to the front door, and, inside, there is a living room up front, kitchen in the back, three or four bedrooms up a flight of stairs. We’ve all been in this house, but have you ever stopped to wonder for whom it was designed? Or, more to the point, for whom it wasn’t? Emory Baldwin has. For years the Seattle architect has watched a changing population stuff itself into structures designed for another time, before so-called nontraditional families were more common than nuclear ones, before the baby boomers—all 78 million of them—started turning 60. The architect saw a pressing need to change the way we think about design. So he started at home. 

“We try to make use of every little bit we can,” Baldwin tells me, opening up a storage space filled with plush blankets that’s been coyly built into a cushioned bench. We are standing on the top floor of the two-year-old Greenlake house he shares with his wife, Laura, and six- and four-year-old daughters Sophia and Annika. Strategically nestled between the girls’ bedrooms and the master suite, this cozy nook is the perfect place for cuddling up with a story before bedtime.

But the rectangular hideout actually has a hidden purpose: Perched above two closets—one on the main floor, one in the basement—it is at the top of a shaft running vertically through the center of the house. The walls are wired and framed according to a residential lift manufacturer’s recommendations so that, should the need arise, an elevator can be installed. The floor on each level can be easily removed, and the elevator pit (where the hydraulic mechanism is set) is already incorporated into the foundation but hidden beneath temporary flooring. If the Baldwins or some future occupant decided to convert the shaft into a functioning lift, they would only need to install the elevator itself, which runs around $20,000. Completely reoutfitting and reengineering a home for an elevator, on the other hand, costs about $100,000.

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Annika Baldwin gets creative with the kitchen backsplash.

Such forward-looking innovations are quintessential universal design, an architectural school of thought based around modifiable, multipurpose floor plans flexible enough to fit all ages, abilities, and household types. Baldwin had his first brush with it while studying abroad in Sydney, Australia, in 1991, when he worked on a vacation home for a family with a wheelchair-bound daughter. His classmates whinged that the project was creatively stifling, but Baldwin had found his purpose. “There are so many good designers out there, and they can all design a really nice house. But if there’s not some bigger reason to it, what’s the point?” he says. After school he began a career creating housing for seniors; most recently he and two colleagues—bent on bringing universal design to the Emerald City—started Zai, a design firm specializing in transformable homes.

The Greenlake house serves as a sort of life-size model, showing clients and design colleagues that accessible building doesn’t have to be about clunky handrails and hospital-style ramps. Its central hub is a dramatically sloped, double-height open space with seven-foot-tall windows that let in such a steady stream of natural light, electric bulbs are often unnecessary—even on the grayest Seattle days. When he built the house Baldwin incorporated beams engineered to support the load of a second floor: If it ever needed to accommodate a larger family, the space can be converted into two levels in only three weeks, and wouldn’t require redesign or reengineering, just an over-the-counter construction permit (which is granted on the spot, versus a full permit review that takes up to five weeks). Without the beams, the restructuring, construction, and permit review combined could take at least four and half months.

Support beams already incorporated into the double-height main area mean the home can be easily converted to two stories.

“To me, if you design right from the beginning, you’re reducing the amount of remodeling in the future, so it eliminates a big amount of waste and money,” says Baldwin. Of course, less waste means universal homes are often greener as well. “So much of sustainability these days is about product. If you use all the product you want, but if you don’t design it right, then you’re still going to tear it out, you’re still wasting it,” he says, treading lightly on thinly striated wood planking, a material made from leftover construction beam scraps.

Baldwin moves into the kitchen where a chalkboard backsplash—repurposed rubble from a local high school—runs along the kitchen wall. The words “Congratulations Zack” are still chalked on it, a remnant from a nephew’s recent graduation party. No doubt as the Baldwin family ages, the trim will celebrate all sorts of milestones—birthdays, births, retirements. And one day Baldwin’s daughters—who are forever jumping up on the counters to doodle on it—might have children who do just the same.

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