This Frank Lloyd Wright Home Is a Model of Universal Design

Gwendolyn Purdom |

This Frank Lloyd Wright Home is a Model of Universal Design

Nearly 30 years after Congress passed the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, accessible-design advocates say there’s still plenty of work to be done to make the built environment just as accommodating for people with disabilities as it is for everybody else. But Erick Mikiten, a California architect with a specialty in universal design, points out one striking example of accessible design from which homeowners, other pros and accessibility champions could learn a lot. And it predates the ADA by more than three decades.

The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Laurent House, completed in Rockford, Illinois, in 1952, is the only Wright property built specifically for a disabled homeowner.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Laurent House in Rockford, Illinois. Photos by Nels Akerlund

“It really is an outstanding example of what I’m always trying to convince people of, which is you can create a home that works for disability and aging in place and not sacrifice the quality of the design,” Mikiten says.

The three-bedroom, two-bath Usonian-style home, which Chicago’s Frank Lloyd Wright Trust will visit in an Oct. 23 event (sold out), doesn’t have the name recognition of other Wright commissions. Instead, the “little gem,” as Wright called it, boasts thoughtful features designed specifically for its wheelchair-using owner that continue to inspire visitors and architects like Mikiten to this day.

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Ahead of Its Time

Kenneth and Phyllis Laurent commissioned their home from Wright in 1948 using a $10,000 Federal Specially Adapted Housing grant for disabled veterans to help cover costs. Inside, the house is laid out in an elongated football shape, or hemicycle, designed to keep the sun out in the summer and heat the house when it’s colder. Among the built-in features that made life easier for Ken were the house’s single-story construction, lowered doorknobs and light switches, wider doorways (at least 36 inches), drop-down cabinets and enough bedroom and hallway space for turning around in a wheelchair. 

“All of these built-ins had a space underneath so Ken could pull his wheelchair up with the footpad underneath so he could get nice and close to it all,” says Jerry Heinzeroth, founder and president of the Laurent House Foundation and a longtime friend of the late Laurents. 

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When the house was recognized with an award in honor of the ADA’s 25th anniversary in 2015, it was estimated that the original house, which the Laurents meticulously maintained, met about 90 percent of modern ADA standards. For all its personalization, though, the special features blend seamlessly into the house’s design. 

“If you were not told that this was an accessible house you would not even know it until you reached for a light switch and thought, ‘Gee, that seems a little low,’” Heinzeroth says.

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Not Sacrificing Style

That balance is at the heart of the contemporary accessible-design work that Mikiten, who uses a wheelchair himself, and other pros do with homeowners every day. Steven and Rachel Courville of Accessibility by Design in Louisiana say simple tweaks like widening doorways and swapping hard-to-get-into bathtubs for more accessible showers can be a big help for their clients. And with the multifunctional products now available, like toilet paper holders that double as grab bars, those remodels can follow the Laurent House’s lead and feel less sterile and more design-centric.

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Accessible Perks

Another lesson that homeowners and design pros can take away from the Laurent House, Mikiten says, is the importance of approaching a project with universal design in mind from the beginning. “You need to be thinking about the drama of the design and the way that it responds to the site and, at the same time, thinking about, well, how is somebody going to get in? How are they going to move around and use it?” he says. “So every sketch line you create has to have both of those ideas in mind.”

By integrating universal design principles like openness, easy-access furniture and other details into a home, pros like Mikiten and the Courvilles can give their clients a place like the Laurent House that welcomes anyone from a friend using a wheelchair to an elderly relative, whether those clients are disabled or not. 

It also could potentially boost a home’s value as the country’s aging population continues to grow, Rachel Courville says. “If you make the home accessible when you build it, or you remodel it then put it on the market, we are going to start seeing a huge demand,” she says. “The demand is going to drive the price, and I’d say that’s bound to go up in the next five years, no doubt.”

Designing for the Soul

History and architecture buffs who visit the Laurent House privately or on the Laurent House Foundation’s bimonthly public tours can still see all of Ken and Phyllis Laurent’s correspondence with Wright, as well as almost every detail the way Wright originally envisioned it. Aside from a 1959 addition Wright worked on briefly before his death, the Laurents kept everything in the house exactly the same until they died in 2012. Restoration work soon after brought Wright’s vision to life even more vividly ahead of the house opening to the public in 2014.

Visitors who know what to look for also can spot all the ways Wright’s thoughtful, forward-looking design considered more than just how the house’s owner would get around.

“The genius of the design is that the perspective of the house, the way the house is supposed to be viewed, the way it comes into proper scale, is from Ken’s eye level. To that effect, Wright even designed the furniture to a height just so that when you were sitting in that furniture, you were at or below Ken’s eye level, which made him the tallest person in the room,” Heinzeroth says. “Wright understood that [Ken] needed spiritual and emotional things within the house that would lift his spirits. Ken said, ‘For all of the 62 years that I lived in this house, I found a little something different that made me feel good every day that I was in it.’”

Tell us: How have you made your house more accessible? Share your stories and photos in the Comments.

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Article Courtesy: - Gwendolyn Purdom