Matthew Gill, 25, was 19 years old when he jumped into the Rock River in Wisconsin. He dove in, not realizing the depth of the water he was diving into, and hit his head, according to his father, Bill Gill.
Matthew’s spinal cord injury put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
The accident changed the trajectory of the Gill family in many ways, including in terms of housing. Matthew’s childhood home in Lisle was no longer conducive to his new mobility. The split-level, five-bedroom, three-bath residence was too small.
“I am in a wheelchair, full time ... we got a chair lift put in. I would transfer to that and use that up the stairs and someone would have to bring up the wheelchair,” Matthew said.
“That led to a lot of frustration for my son early on,” Bill said.
And despite Bill being in the real estate industry for 32 years, his experience and expertise did not make it easier to find a home that was compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
When the Gills started looking for homes, they wanted to stay in their current school district for their youngest daughter (then in elementary school). But after looking at “hundreds of homes online” and viewing about 80 homes in person — seeking residences with first floor masters or ranch homes that could be remodeled — and not finding anything suitable with the help of colleagues and competitors, Bill, Baird & Warner’s branch manager in Naperville, Ill., decided to design and build their own home.
“Some of the homes just needed so much work,” he said. “And we were doing all of this with everything else going on — trying to work, a sixth grader, three kids in college, and then Matt. The entire family was just devastated at this injury.”
But before their custom home was built, a six-bedroom, 4.5-bath home in Naperville became available. The Gills remodeled and moved in during March 2015.
“The house was about the same floor plan that we were designing and yet buying it was half the cost of building a house,” Bill Gill said. “And the modifications we did were about half the cost of what any other house we looked at would have been.”
The modifications entailed:
Taking out a pantry to add a vertical platform lift for Matthew’s wheelchair (a cross between an elevator and a forklift, it doesn’t require inspections like an elevator).
A bedroom with a fan, thermostat and lights controlled by Matt’s phone.
A video-monitoring system to see who is coming up the walk/driveway.
A roll-in luxury shower.
Hallways and doorways that are wider than his 28-inch chair.
No steps in the house, including to the outside deck.
A refrigerator with shallow shelves and wide doors, so he can reach all the shelves.
A kitchen island that allows Matt access to the oven and stove.
A three-car garage with a ramp that allows Matt direct access to the house.
Bill says these are all things that you don’t think about until you have to.
“This is where the real challenge lies: Accessible means different things to different people. To some people it means a ranch home, but it might be a ranch home with steps down to the family room. The biggest problem is defining what exactly an accessible home is. Here, Matthew can get into every room in the house,” he said.
The Gills aren’t alone in their search for a home centered around a loved one’s mobility needs. While they were looking for a home that provided a new normal for them, others may be looking to age in place and add features to their living space. According to the Housing America’s Older Adults 2019 report released by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS), just 3.5% of all U.S. homes had basic accessibility features, including grab-bars or handrails in the bathroom, extra-wide hallways and doors, and a bedroom on the entry level, in 2011. Given that mobility and other difficulties increase with age, the report projects many older homeowners will need to make accessibility improvements if they want to remain in their homes.
“We have been doing a lot more jobs where we’re basically getting houses more accessible as our clients age,” said Bob Zuber, a partner at Morgante Wilson Architects. “I think we’re also seeing a lot of in-laws staying with clients and getting that ready to go. We’re talking about bigger bathrooms, elevators, wider hallways, and first floors that are closer to ground level with the possibility of ramps integrated into the landscape or into the front porch.”
Knowing a client’s needs means fewer broad strokes and more specificity when it comes to finding or designing for one’s accessibility, says Dave Ernst, a principal with Morgante who designed Susan and Jon Newsome’s Winnetka residence to adhere to Jon’s myotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) needs. Their home includes:
A ceiling-mounted lift system that uses a sling to transport Jon between the master bedroom and bath, which features an ADA-compliant vanity and tub/wet room area.
Wide halls and doorways that accommodate wheelchair accessibility.
An elevator that accesses the basement and second floor.
A main hallway that transverses the center of the home and provides access to all major first-floor living spaces. (A reinforced handrail is gracefully incorporated into the hallway’s wainscot paneling chair rail.)
Jon, 77, was diagnosed in 2010 and is completely immobile now. Susan said that although they had some idea of what adaptations the house would need, architects were helpful in the research that they provided. Communication is key too.
“It’s important that they find out what that person is going to need based upon their lifestyle and what they want to do,” she said.
Ernst said the Newsomes brought the idea of the lift system to Morgante when designing. He also said Morgante is currently working on homes for 30-somethings that will leave room for accessibility features to be added when the time comes.
Matthew is now working toward becoming a full-time financial adviser; and “getting ever so slightly tolerant of his situation,” per his dad. Matthew said he and his brother are talking about eventually moving into a Chicago apartment together. One possibility for an accessible space is 640 N. Wells St., which has 30 ADA-compliant units with roll-in showers, kitchen countertops and cabinetry that can be lowered to fit the needs of the resident and electrical wiring to allow for notification systems for those who are deaf, according to Ericka Rios, leasing director and co-founder of Downtown Apartment Co., a matchmaker for buildings and renters.
Bill looks back and says networking with more people in the same situation is essential when looking for and preparing to buy an accessible home.
Finding out what worked and what didn’t work for other individuals and their different experiences would have prepared the Gills a bit more for their circumstances.
“Finding resources to help you — people who have gone there before — that’s the biggest thing,” Bill said. “I felt like we were doing that, but the bottom line is we were not doing it enough. You need more perspectives and input and that’s going to be the best help you can get. You’ll see themes. If you talk to six people and they tell you the same thing, you better listen. The more you interact and the more you network, the more it helps you.”
When looking for accessible homes, Zuber recommends focusing on properties with most of the living space on one level; doorways that are oversized; and 5-foot diameter spaces for wheelchair turnaround.
“A lot of people aren’t familiar with what the requirements are, so we educate them so that they know why we are providing those extra spaces,” Ernst said. “Giving clients exactly what they want and need, making it less of a house and more of a home.”