Ronnette Riley, FAIA, was practicing universal design long before the term was coined, and while she admires the intent of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), she takes issue with some of its content. As was the case for the owner of this apartment in New York City's Upper East Side, prescriptive standards aren't always the best solution. Handrail specs are one example, she says. “They are so big that a small person's hands can't comfortably grab them, but the rules are specific and can't be altered.” Riley complied with ADA for this reconfigured kitchen and bathroom, but customized details throughout the apartment to serve both the husband's recent physical disability and the wife's diminutive stature. Updating the apartment and increasing natural light penetration were also high priorities for the owners. “The apartment hadn't been touched in 25 years,” says Riley. “It was a rabbit warren of a lot of little rooms.”

“The kitchen was originally in the back and cut off by a butler's pantry,” she explains. “We flipped that plan and took about 3 feet from the dining room to open up the kitchen.” Three sliding frosted glass panels and one pivot door enable kitchen and dining to maintain separate identities or merge into one contiguous space. The dishwasher was raised off the floor and the microwave set in a cubby just below counter height, making both appliances accessible without bending or reaching. Materials with a little give (Corian, Marmoleum) were selected for horizontal applications. “The owner was concerned about falling, so we wanted soft surfaces,” says Riley, “but they also had to be smooth to ease walking.”

Upper cabinets were eliminated except for a few near the stove; their elongated doors put lower shelves within daily reach. A long counter runs the length of a widened hallway, connecting kitchen to laundry room/pantry. The counter remains open underneath to park a wheelchair, but also helps steady the husband as he walks about the unit. Grab bars turn up in one form or another intermittently from the master bedroom at one end of the 2,500-square-foot plan to a desk overlooking the East River at the far end. The custom hand-holds were integrated into the architecture, says Riley, so the spaces wouldn't “look like hospital rooms.”

architect: Ronnette Riley Architect, New York City

general contractor: Fountainhead Construction, New York City

resources: countertops: Dupont Corian; flooring: Forbo and Amtico; lighting fixtures: Halo and Rega; paints: Benjamin Moore; plumbing fixtures and fittings: American Standard, Kohler, and Kroin; tile: B&B Sea Glass Tile