By Sara DeMuth
As a program of Philadelphia University’s chapter of the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS), Freedom by Design sets out to enhance people’s lives throughout the community by making accessibility improvements to their homes. By using the skills of our university’s architecture students, we are able to significantly increase safety, dignity, and comfort in homes through a series of minor design and construction solutions. We believe that everyone deserves freedom in their home, and our duty is to help them achieve it.
After hearing about the opportunity to work with Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia, we were extremely excited to partner with an organization that puts such a strong emphasis on helping communities throughout the world. And, more importantly, they led us to the wonderful Ms. Alisa Pitt, who is a homeowner in North Central Philadelphia living with neurological damage that makes balancing very difficult. Her life creates spontaneous challenges that her home was not equipped to deal with—the house lacked necessary safety and accessibility elements, and had become unsafe for Ms. Alisa and the small grandchildren that she babysits.
We were deeply saddened to hear of Ms. Alisa’s condition, but enthusiastic to have the opportunity to help a family in need. Our team’s goal was to design and build handrails for the first and second-floor staircases, and to replace an unsafe stair banister on the third floor, which lacked the strength to support human weight.
It’s easy to take handrails for granted—they’re often not even noticed until they’re gone. Ms. Alisa did not have handrails anywhere in her home, so they became an essential piece of our design. The handrails are constructed of milled 2×6″ poplar wood that feels comfortable and has a sturdy appearance, creating a sense of comfort. The handrails were routed to create a comfortable and accessible place for the hand to hold. We used a series of lag bolts to attach the wooden rails to the masonry party wall, adding painted steel spacers between the wall and handrail to let the bolts stay visible.
Even a small feature like a handrail has a major impact on our daily lives, so our team dedicated time to making sure it was something Ms. Alisa was safe and comfortable with. During the design process we thought about how to create objects that were both pleasing to the touch and easily accessible in case of a fall or loss of balance. Our team wanted to design something that would not only be physically sturdy but would also have a strong, supportive appearance, thereby providing a sense of safety for Ms. Alisa and her family.
We decided to pre-fabricate the majority of the pieces in a woodshop on campus, because Ms. Alisa lives in an aging Philadelphia rowhome that has little extra space for working. After running into a few unexpected installation issues that came from the construction of the rowhome, the final building process took about two days to complete. All in all it was a great experience, and we were very delighted with the results. In the end, seeing Ms. Alisa smile because she finally felt comfortable in her home was all that mattered.