A life-altering accident in his family was an eye-opening experience for Peter Crain, owner of Trestle Homes, Minneapolis. Crain's younger sister Jenny was a marathon runner and Olympic hopeful — until she was struck by a car 11 years ago and suffered a traumatic brain injury that put her in a wheelchair. Pushing that chair as he took his sister to appointments and events, Crain encountered the obstacles she faced in daily life.
"There are curbs everywhere, barriers everywhere," he says. "Everything was so difficult. It was a light-bulb moment."
Jenny spent two years of intensive care in a rehab facility, and couldn't return to her former home, a three-level condo in Milwaukee. The family sold it, found a one-level condo with elevator access to the parking garage and modified the bathroom so she could use it.
But other people's homes remained problematic. Commercial buildings are required to be ADA-compliant, Crain notes. "Most residential construction lags far behind." Not everyone experiences a catastrophic accident like Crain's sister, but life takes its toll on many people as they lose mobility to aging or illness. Why, Crain wondered, aren't more homes designed and built to accommodate that?
Crain has long been fascinated with architecture. "When I was younger I wanted to be an architect," he says. "It was my dream." But the industry was in a downturn at the time he needed to launch a career. "There were no jobs," he recalls. So he became an art teacher instead, and did renderings for architects on the side.
He taught for five years in Chicago, then moved, with his wife, to Minnesota, where he taught art and headed the art department at Eden Prairie High School.
During summers, he remodeled his own house in Edina, then started picking up other design and construction projects, which led, ultimately, to leaving education and launching his own design-build firm in 2001. "It was one of those natural progressions," he says.
Crain's art and architectural background are unusual in his industry. "Most people come up in one of the trades," he says.
After his sister's accident, Crain began exploring accessible design, or "lifetime-friendly" design, as he prefers to think of it.
"If a home is more lifetime-friendly, it's beneficial to whole families," he says. "People should be thinking about it. In America, we tend to build for five years." But many people stay in their homes — or would prefer to stay if they could — much longer.
"What if you raise kids, and they bounce back with grandkids, and you want to keep the house? It's better to build in features that allow you to stay there," Crain says.
It's also more cost-effective to build in accessibility from the beginning, rather than retrofit later when accessible features become needed, he adds. Crain now raises the issue with clients who are tackling larger remodeling projects. "When people say, 'We're ready to invest in our home. We think we're going to stay,' they've made a commitment," he says.
And in cases where the existing home will be difficult and costly to make accessible, Crain sometimes advises clients to consider investing in another home that's "easier to edit."
Last fall, Crain challenged himself to build a new lifetime-friendly design showcase — an upscale urban farmhouse in Linden Hills that was stylish, modern — and subtly packed with accessible-design features.
"We put in things that you wouldn't normally do in a spec house," Crain says. "I wanted to push some ideas out there." Those features include:
• 36-inch doorways, to accommodate a wheelchair.
• Wheel-under vanities and countertops.
• Large turnaround radiuses in areas where a wheelchair would need to pivot.
• An elevator.
• Touch faucets.
• Main-floor bedroom/bath with zero-threshhold shower equipped with fold-down seat and hand-held shower head mounted low.
• Extra-wide tub.
• Built-in bench on the stair landing.
• Even color was used to enhance accessibility. The crisp black-and-white interiors with pops of bold color were right on-trend — but also helpful for those with impaired vision trying to navigate where one surface ends and another begins.
"Contrasting colors help a lot," Crain says. "All gray or all white can look like a big blob."
Crain worked with architectural designer Charles Ainsworth and interior designer Christine Frisk of InUnison Design to create the home, which was showcased on the fall Parade of Homes as one of five Dream Homes. The house doesn't scream universal design or have the institutional aesthetic that many associate with accessibility.
"It's not like there are grab bars all over the walls," Crain says. "We wanted it to feel like a normal house." But there's backing for grab bars should they be needed in the future, he notes.
All the lifetime-friendly features added only about 2 percent to the total cost of the home, most of that spent on the elevator, Crain says. The accessible Dream Home soon found a buyer, a blended family with kids — and a visiting grandparent with chronic knee and back pain.
"They were looking for a home like this," says Crain, "but didn't know it."