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A Remote Baja Home Built to Be Accessible to Everyone

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Designed by Cathi House, the Casa Cabo Pulmo incorporates universal design principles to create an accessible home that's more comfortable for everyone. All photos courtesy Steven and Cathi House.

If you want to understand how the Casa Cabo Pulmo, an off-the-grid home built on the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, exemplifies universal design, just take a stroll up the ramp. Owners Patricia Wright and Debra Zeyen wanted their new home to be holistic, integrating accessible features instead of just tacking them on at the end. Architect Cathi House, who runs the House + House studio with her husband Steven, took that direction to heart when designing the polished concrete ramp, as much a showcase for the stunning landscape as an elevated entrance. The switchbacks pivot on raised platforms where you can rest and take in the scenery. Planters bisect the 165-foot path, integrating the land. The raised ground even does double duty, hiding both the batteries for the home's solar system as well as a water cistern. Regardless of their degree of mobility, guests normally choose to walk up the ramp because the views are so beautiful. Like the rest of the home's layout, it was meant to present a series of twists and turns that makes traveling through the space a beautiful experience, according to Cathi House.

"We think architects should do this automatically, not just because it's meant for people with disabilities or a public project, but it's just the right thing to do," says Steven. "It's always awkward if it looks like an afterthought."

From the color to the intricate wave patterns in the railings, the home was designed to reflect the Baja landscape.

Finished in 2010, the Casa Cabo Pulmo is actually built on the site of a former vacation house. Wright, a blind disability rights activist who helped pass the Americans With Disabilities Act, and Zeyen, Executive Director of the Baja Coastal Institute, an organization that seeks to protect the region's coastal ecosystems, had previously visited and fell in love with the remote area of the Baja Peninsula near the Sea of Cortes, despite a trying first experience. On their initial stay in 2003, their trip over dirt roads made it clear they were staying in a remote but beautiful area, an observation reinforced after they endured a hurricane during their vacation.

When they purchased land in the remote fishing village that already had a pre-existing home, wanting to build their own dream house, they contacted House + House, a firm whose work they admired. A friend's home in Oakland designed by the firm was "like a piece of art." Their initial requests for the energy-independent home included fully integrated universal design; features such as hydraulic lifts on the ceilings, accessible bathrooms and showers, light switches at a lower level, as well as expansive views and access to all the patios.

"We have several friends with wheelchairs, and we knew that universal accessibility could be important to us in the future," says Zeyen.

The ramp was integrated into the design from the outset and has numerous functions, including doubling as battery storage and a water cistern.

The couple wanted a home that worked for everyone, which both fit with House + House's philosophy and presented the firm with a chance to build a case study around accessible design.

"We've always realized that whether you're disabled or not has nothing to do with it," says Cathi House. "You could be a child with soapy hands and not be able to open up a door with a round doorknob. Design should be for everyone."

Cathi began the concepting phase by analyzing the tropical desert landscape, including wind and sun patterns, to help formulate a unique, efficient blueprint for the home. Created with passive systems, cross ventilation and windows that help circulate the breeze, the structure downplays the need for mechanical cooling systems.

"We never think of turning the AC on, the breeze goes right across the desk," says Zeyen.

The layout and custom railings, based on House's sketches of shells and the ocean, were oriented to cast intriguing shadows across the home and yard throughout the day. Even the colors of the home, which owe a little bit to the idea of Barragán-like color blocking, were drawn from the foliage and flowers found in the landscape. ("When you look at the landscape at a slightly deeper level, you start to look at the undertones and see a very rich palette," says Cathi.) The windows are oriented to provide a 180-degree view, presenting the ocean and the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains; at night, the stars are visible, and during the right season, Wright and Zeyen can spot whales jumping in the distance.

From curved benches to lower counters and outlets to integrated supports and lifts, the home has accessibility features integrated into nearly every aspect of the design without announcing the home as an "accessible" building.

Built to be off-the-grid, with solar panels hidden on the flat roof, the home exemplified sustainability and energy conservation from the outset of construction. A local crew built the home by hand without power tools using local materials, and even recycled part of the pre-existing structure, crushing the concrete and reusing it in the new construction. Roughly 30 percent of the initial structure was left standing and incorporated into the new home. The palapa roofs over the terraces provide shading and local color and help meet certain local building requirements. It was a unique operation, though it caught the attention of locals for a surprising reason.

"When they started on the ramp, the town thought we were building a skate park since that's the first thing that went up," says Wright.

The palapa-style roof can be found on overhangs and porches; the main flat roof above the home contains a bank of solar panels hidden from view.

The custom railing, with wave patterns meant to recall the nearby ocean, was custom-made by a local artisan.

The Houses' look at the finished design as being as much or more about how it feels than how it works. The whole interior, with lowered sockets and surfaces, appliances such as dishwaters set above ground level, allows for easier access and flow. Even subtle changes in dimensions can alter the way you interact with a space, says Cathi. When they reflect back on the process of building the home, the architects like to mention the experience of two early houseguests. They'd heard about the general layout of the accessible home, but didn't know what to expect considering it was so remote, an area that many with disabilities wouldn't try to go. But as soon as they experienced the ramps, and the ability to move easily throughout the home, they were rolling themselves around like kids at play. It was a telling example of what a slightly wider perspective can bring to a project.

"A lot of it comes down to common sense," says Steven. "We assume people are going to get older in their home, and you might eventually have a harder time working and seeing. For every project we do, we think about these concepts and incorporate them from the beginning so they're not tacked on."

The accessible, roll-in showers include hand-held sprayers.

The ADA at 25: How One Law Helped Usher in An Age of Accessible Design [Curbed]
How a San Francisco Architect Reframes Design for the Blind [Curbed]