Why Building an Accessible Home is For Everyone

Home should be a warm and welcoming place to everyone you choose to invite in. Design blogs usually focus on the visual aspects of this, and the ways in which colour, patterns, and decor choice can be used to create an inviting space. But for many people, the actual architecture of the home is even more important.

For those who require use of a wheelchair, walker, or scooter to get around, a welcoming home starts with accessible design. This is something that too often gets overlooked in the world of home design, which tends to hyper-focus on aesthetic details. But it doesn’t matter how beautiful a space is if it’s literally inaccessible to somebody.

Most public places are now constructed with accessibility in mind. Every new parking lot, no matter how small, has an accessibility parking space. New commercial buildings are designed to accommodate ramps and other such features. So why don’t we design our homes in this way as well?

To tell the truth, it’s something most people don’t think about unless it hits home with them.

If your family doesn’t include a person with special needs, you may think there’s no need to have an accessible home. While this is an innocent assumption, it’s also a bit short-sighted.

Your circle could one day include someone with special needs, be it a coworker, a neighbour, a friend, or a new family member. Accessibility needs of an individual can also change over time, especially for older people after retirement.

You would hate to spend so much time and effort designing the perfect home, only to be unable to share it with someone you love be unable.

That’s why building an accessible home is for everyone. There are steps everyone can take, and things they can keep in mind, when building or buying a house that will help ensure it’s a welcoming place for people of all ages and abilities if and when the occasion arises.

What is Accessible House Building?

The CMHA defines four different levels of accessibility in housing: visit-able, adaptable, accessible, and universal homes.

The three basic features of a visit-able home a level, no-step entry, wide doors and hallways, and a wheelchair-accessible half bathroom on the main floor. These features are meant to ensure that anyone can have access to at least the main area of the house. No-step entryways can be ground-level doors or raised doors with a ramp; however, even a two to three foot step requires quite a long ramp to safely reach, so ground floor is considered ideal.

A visit-able home is the minimum for accessibility in a home, and the level that is most realistic for average homeowners to attain. It covers the three most important aspects of having a home that is open to visitors: the ability to enter the home, ease of movement once inside, and a safe washroom anyone can use.

The other levels of accessibility are adaptable, accessible, and universal. An adaptable house is built with features that can be modified to accommodate someone with a disability at little cost, with no extensive renovations required. You can make an adaptable home in cool, subtle ways: having removable cabinetry in the kitchen to create knee space for someone in a wheelchair, a knock-out floor panel in the closet to allow space for an elevator, and stairs built to accommodate a stair lift. You’d never know an adaptable home just by looking at it.

Accessible homes is designed to meet the needs of a person who uses a wheelchair, with special attention to the floor plan and placement of furniture. Each room has sufficient turning space for a wheelchair, the bathroom has a level, wheel-in shower area, and the kitchen counter have knee space. Universal homes are similar, affording everyone who visits the same choices for using the space, with features like enhanced lighting and easy-to-use door handles.

If you’re looking to make your home more accessible, start with the fundamentals of a visit-able home: the entrance, indoor movement space, and washroom. But if you’re building a house from scratch, it’s well worth considering incorporating adaptable features into the house plan. You never know when you’ll be glad to have them!

Traditional vs Modern Architecture – What’s the Real Difference?

If you’re a fan of home renovation and design shows, you’re probably used to hearing the words ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ almost as often as ‘flip’ and ‘curb appeal.’ They’re perennial terms in the home design lexicon.

However, their widespread use has also lead to a lot of misuse, with many people using ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ as catchy substitutions for ‘new’ and ‘old. When it comes to buying or building a home, this invariably leads to some confusion, since traditional and modern take on entirely different meanings in the world of architecture.

We won’t give you a full architecture 101 – that’d take far more words than would comfortably load on this page! But we will lay out some of the main differences between the two styles in the interest of clearing up some misconceptions.

What is a Traditional Home?

If you were to do a Google search for ‘traditional home’, you’d likely find some wildly different interpretations. After all, ‘traditional’ is a loaded term. To many, it’s just a fancy way of saying old and a traditional home means one built in the 20th century or earlier. It can also be a lifestyle term, saying more about the home’s inhabitants rather than the home itself.

Let’s be clear: when we’re talking about traditional homes, we mean the architecture and design sensibilities.

So what is a traditional home? In short, it means any home influenced by a historical style of architecture. Here in Ontario, you can find tons of different traditional styles sprinkled throughout the province, including buildings inspired by Victorian, Craftsman, and Colonial styles.

Each style has its own story and defining features. But like many aspects of our culture, Canadians like to blend parts of different styles together, resulting in a mish-mash of homes that all count as ‘traditional’.

The most popular features of traditional architecture include a grand entrance complete with a porch and columns, a high, pointed roof with one or more gables, symmetrical windows with shutters, and a textured exterior made from brick, stone, or wood.

Traditional homes are usually large, with many small rooms to accommodate large families (which was the norm back in the day). This was desirable back in the day; open floor plans weren’t really a thing yet. So traditional homes typically require renovation to bring them up to speed with our present-day preferences.

While they don’t have open floor plans, traditional homes boast tons of charm and ambiance. Traditional styles were all about elegance and fine details. Victorian homes are instantly recognizable by their handcrafted wooden gingerbread (or vergeboarding). Gothic homes often have pointed roofs and ornately-detailed windows. Traditional homes feel warm and lived in, like there’s a story to be told about each little nook and cranny.

What is Modern?

Modern doesn’t necessarily mean ‘new’. The modern architecture movement sprang up back in the 1920’s and hit its stride in the 1950’s and 60’s, so some modern homes are almost a hundred years old at this point. However, the style has become synonymous with futurism.

The style emerged as a response to the stuffy design sensibilities of the traditional homes. No longer were some satisfied with hand-carved wood and pointed roofs. Modern architecture is all about doing away with unnecessary details and letting the actual basic structure of the house shine through.

The tell-tale traits of modern architecture are clean lines, flat or low-sloped roofs, and an untextured exterior. Modern homes take advantage of technologically advanced building materials like metal and concrete, and embrace natural lighting with large windows.

What About New Homes That Look Traditional?

Whether these homes count as traditional or modern is up for debate. On the outside, many newly-built homes draw inspiration from traditional styles – big porches, high roofs, and a combination of wood, brick, and stone exteriors (or synthetic materials that resemble them).

However, open up the doors to a present-day home and you’re likely to find features of modern architecture, like an open floor plan and plenty of natural light.

Architecture purists may argue that a traditional home is one built during the era where those homes were in style. If you see it that way, traditional-looking suburban homes of today are neither traditional nor modern. But you could also say they fall under the scope of either traditional or modern.

How Home Design Helped People Survive Before Air Conditioning

Shotgun homes were designed to keep inhabitants cool in the Southern heat.

Back in 1979, former TIME magazine writer Frank Tripper wrote that people have become “all but addicted” to air conditioning. That’s a harsh way to put it, but some forty years later, Tripper’s observation is as true as it ever was. For those who live in hot climates (and even for many of us north of the US border) it’s hard to imagine life without the miracle of mechanical cooling.

Air conditioning has been around since 1902, but it’s only in the last 80 years or so that people have been accustomed to having it in their homes. So how did people survive the sweltering summer months before that?

There’s no one-stop solution to A/C-free cooling. In the years before air conditioning, people combined a variety of habits and routines to keep themselves going during the hottest days of the year: escaping to the outdoors, taking mid-day siestas, and getting creative.

But the coolest pre-AC cooling tricks were found in architecture.

Most modern homes are designed with central air conditioning in mind. They’re built to be as airtight and weatherproof as possible, hoarding cool air during the summer and keeping out cold winds in the winter. But if your A/C is on the fritz, it can be very difficult to keep your home from becoming stuffy, and humid.

Before 1902, builders in warm climates designed buildings that were meant to keep their inhabitants cool. As Apartment Therapy explains, they built higher ceilings to allow heat to rise and make the space below feel cooler. Some builders added deep eaves and porches to prevent sunlight from streaming in through the windows. Rooms had windows on opposite sides of the space for cross-ventilation, and people planted trees for additional shade.

Perhaps the best example of this technique is in shotgun-style homes. These homes were most iconic and prevalent in New Orleans, but you can find them in San Francisco and other American cities as well.

Shotgun houses had all the rooms lined up in a row to allow air to flow through them. High ceilings, covered porches, and window shutters kept the air circulating and the direct sun off interior rooms. Many windows had awnings and interior shades to provide additional UV-protection.

It’s a shame these ingeniously-designed homes gone out of vogue, but it’s not hard to see why: their unique layout is pretty far from what most modern buyers are looking for.

For one, they’re small. While the tiny house movement is bigger than ever, the mainstream thought still embraces the idea that more space = better. Typically, the front door in a shotgun home leads straight into the living room, and the kitchen is all the way in the back of the house to keep the heat from the stove and oven secluded. That made sense back in 1900, but now, we’re open-concept all the way.

Besides, the homes are an introvert’s nightmare – the bedrooms upstairs are often interconnected, with no hallway separating them! What you gain in cooling efficiency, you lose in privacy.

For now, I’ll stick with my air conditioner.

6 Ways to Spot a True Victorian Home

victorian style home
Is this a true Victorian-style home?

What comes to mind when you think of Victorian architecture? Like many of you, I picture high-pointed roofs flourished with ornate wooden vergeboarding, colourful wood plank siding, and windows flanked by classic shutters or brickwork. But did you know that the Victorian architecture encompasses a wide range of different styles?

The name, of course, refers to Queen Victoria, who ruled the British Empire from 1837 to 1901. There were a number of different styles that were created during her reign, and many of them now fall under what we consider Victorian architecture.

Victorian house builders were all about the fine details. They embraced the romantic Victorian ideal that aesthetics was as important as function, if not moreso (just think of those impractical Victorian hoop dresses). Each home has something that sets it apart and makes it unique. The blend of different styles and eras in Victorian architecture have a way of mixing together into a unified design.

This collage of styles can also make it difficult to identify a true Victorian-style home. Many people point to any old, brick building with a pointy roof and bay windows and call it Victorian. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — but if you’re on the hunt for a real Victorian home, here are some things to look out for:

  1. At least two stories. You won’t see many Victorian bungalows. This style was all about excess, and most of these houses are quite grand, both in a literal and figurative sense.
  2. Wood or stone exterior. Most Victorian homes have ornate brickwork or a vertical wood siding. If one wants to renovate this type of home and preserve its true essence, they should stick with these traditional materials.
  3. Decorative roof trim. Vergeboarding, also known as gingerbread, exploded in popularity in the Victorian era. Few contemporary homes sport these stylish flourishes.
  4. Steep, multi-faceted roof. High peaks and gables are a common mark of this building style. Some even include round or octagonal towers! The exception is the Second Empire variation of this building style, which embraces flat-topped roofs for maximum space inside the house.
  5. One-story porch. First impressions were important in Victorian architecture, and many houses have a grand front entrance that includes a wraparound porch.
  6. Built before 1901. Though some builders kept this style alive well after the end of Victoria’s reign, a true Victorian home is one that was crafted during her time. These homes are becoming rarer and rarer each year, but fellow enthusiasts are helping to keep the style alive.

Few among us wouldn’t love to live in a Victorian-style home. They have a timeless beauty that evokes a sense of comfort and warmth, whether they are in a small town or a world-class city like Toronto. Happy house hunting!

What Will Happen to the Toronto Cube House?

toronto cube house
Martin Trainor calls the cubes home sweet home. From the Toronto Star

Toronto is home to a score of amazing architectural feats. There’s the striking, contentious Crystal addition which juts out onto the street from the Royal Ontario Museum; the glass palace that is the Globe & Mail Centre; and, of course, the iconic CN Tower.

With so many massive structures, it’s easy to forget this modest entry in modern architecture: the cube house on Sumach St.

Designed by architect Ben Kutner in 1996, the Unitri cubes may be the most unique home in Toronto. And though it’s not as big as the ROM or the G&M, it’s hard to miss it.

The home is sandwiched between two on/off ramps between Adelaide and Eastern Avenue, greeting drivers heading to and from the Don Valley Parkway. Though originally intended as a three-condo unit, it has gradually transformed into a house-billboard hybrid.

Each cube is 42 feet by 42 feet and divided into three separate floors, which adds up to over 9,000 square feet of living space. Though they have few windows, the cubes get enough natural light to grow house plants inside.

Kutner based his idea on Rotterdam’s famous Cubic Houses. The cubes are designed to be the versatile and affordable modular homes of the future. They can be erected in weeks and arranged complex residential or commercial units. They can also fit in areas where there’s no room to build a traditional house. Kutner calls them, “Meccano on steroids.”

Of course, the cubes didn’t catch on like their Dutch inspiration did. Kutner never got around to building more cube homes, and they didn’t exactly lead the way to the future of architecture. But that just makes the Toronto prototype all the more special.

CBC video producer Martin Trainor calls the cube house home for fifteen years. “I choose to live here because it’s unique”, he says. “It’s a great architectural masterpiece, if you ask me.”

Unfortunately, these cute little cubes face an uncertain future. Last fall, the owner of the property placed the entire lot up for sale – cube home and all.

It’s not surprising, given how the value of the land has soared in the past decade. Since the cubes are just over twenty years old, it’s unlikely they could get protection as heritage properties. What happens to the Unitri cubes will be up to whoever buys the property.

Sure, not everyone wants to live in a forest-green cube with billboards plastered to the side. But there’s no shortage of identical suburban townhomes out there for plain, ordinary folk to snap up. There’s only one Unitri cube in all the world!

Building are part of what make the city what it is. Let’s hope the eventual buyer will help keep this spark alive.