How an Accessible Garden Promotes Well-Being For an Entire Family

When envisioning the perfect home for their family, our clients identified accessibility as paramount. They needed seamless indoor/outdoor transitions and access for their two daughters who have special needs and rely on their wheelchairs to get around. After acquiring a long, skinny lot in Downers Grove, IL and hiring an architect, they turned to our firm to create a stimulating and flexible landscape that would invigorate and enrich the girls lives from childhood through maturity.

 Front of house

Front of house

 View of the main courtyard from the central corridor in the house. This view can be seen from almost every room.

View of the main courtyard from the central corridor in the house. This view can be seen from almost every room.

This single family home is designed around a central spine with a series of courtyards granting access to the outside from every room. There are no steps anywhere on the site or on thresholds between indoor and outdoor. The landscape was designed to be completely accessible by a wheelchair.  

The courtyards offer the girls a variety of amenities and sensory experiences, including a low wall to sit on at the front entrance to wait for their brothers’ bus after school.

 Front entrance

Front entrance

In the main courtyard, a fountain with shallow basins is an invitation for soaking hands and feet. The mix of evergreen Hemlocks, Boxwoods and Pachysandra provide a year-round green garden. The home’s large windows and organization around courtyards mean the gardens are a central feature of the home all year.

 Aerial view of main courtyard with fountain

Aerial view of main courtyard with fountain

In the back courtyard, a fireplace provides a heating element for the family to enjoy the space even on cold nights.  In time, the outdoor dining area will be shaded by the four Honeylocust trees.

 View of the back courtyard and fireplace

View of the back courtyard and fireplace

The plants we selected include abundant evergreens so the courtyards hold as much appeal in the winter as in the summer. Bulbs planted throughout the courtyards provide a spectacular display of color in the spring. Due to their medical condition, the girls spend a lot time on the ground, so the design provides for large areas of turf and shade.  

In the girls’ courtyard, ipe ramps and decks at every door assure a smooth, dry transition from inside to outside.  The lawn provides a comfortable space for the girls to relax and lie down.

 View to girls' courtyard

View to girls' courtyard

 Aerial view of girls' courtyard

Aerial view of girls' courtyard

We incorporated two large rain gardens in the front and back yards to capture water throughout the site. The rain garden plants can survive both inundation and drought.

 Front rain garden

Front rain garden

The project was awarded an ASLA Illinois Chapter Merit Award in 2017. The home was also featured in a video and article by Dwell magazine in 2017. Photographs are by Tom Harris Photography.

We’re pleased to have collaborated with these firms on this project.

Kuklinski + Rappe Architects

Genesis Surveying Engineering

Roberts Design and Build

When to Get a Landscape Architect on your Design Team

After years of shepherding our clients through budget surprises and disappointments they could have avoided had we been on their design team from the start, we recommend getting a landscape architect on the team at this point:

Early. At the start. Before you site your home. When you hire your architect.

In other words, before you think you need one.

Why? Isn’t that just more expensive for me?

The cost of having another consultant on your design team from the start is an added line item on your budget. But waiting until after your home’s design is complete can mean you have less control over two things: your design choices and your money.

This is why the timing matters:

Better Control Over Your Choices

Early design (often called schematic design) is when you and your design team define your priorities. You also make some big-picture decisions about where your house will be positioned on your land, how large it will be, and perhaps its elevation. Whether or not you’re thinking about landscape at this point, these decisions are going to affect every aspect of your lifestyle outdoors.

At this stage, your landscape goals may not be much clearer than “I know we want a pool and a spa.” If your landscape architect is on your team early, they can show you how the decisions you make about your home’s footprint, orientation, and elevation will either enhance or erode your vision of splashing in the pool at sunset. For example, a larger footprint may mean you can’t fit a full-size pool and you lose out on a sunny deck. Another orientation may mean you can add a cabana and capture your favorite view from the spa.

Or imagine you yearn for a shaded expanse where you can host large parties or alfresco dining under a canopy of leafy trees. Building your home from property line to property line may make installation of large trees, maintenance, or a marquee tent very challenging—and potentially more expensive when there is no way for large equipment to get back there. It may make you reconsider the footprint of your home.

In other words, understanding how decisions about your home affect your landscape gives you the whole picture. And with the whole picture you avoid compromising what you really hoped for without realizing it.

Better Control Over Your Budget

Like the mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and structural engineering systems in architecture, every landscape is supported by hidden infrastructure. It’s invisible, yet necessary. We’ve discovered that when a landscape architect isn’t involved early enough on the team, budget estimates for this infrastructure are consistently too low. When this happens, our clients have to cut amenities they yearned for in order to pay for costs they were unprepared for.

Take soil. This is one of the budget items most frequently miscalculated without a landscape architect. Costs associated with your soil’s health for planting, how much of it you’ll actually need based on your design, and its condition after construction—all of this is frequently met with the question “How come I didn’t know this before?” Knowing up front a landscape architect’s estimate for removing and replacing soil compacted during construction may make you decide to spend differently on other choices. This way, you preserve a healthy budget for a pool, pergola, or outdoor kitchen.

Or grading. Raising the floor elevation of your home may work out perfectly well when you’re inside. But we’re trained to show you how your high foundation will appear from the outside and how it will affect how you enter and exit your home. Did you want your budget to go into significant foundation plantings? Will the cost of the high stair needed to connect home to land change the way you spend on other areas? Discovering these implications after your home is built usually means sacrificing something you wanted to fund.

Designing your “forever” home is an endeavor of passion. Dreams, energy, money, aspirations, decisions, time—you invest all of these into creating a carefully crafted vision of a beautiful life with those you love.

At Barker Evans, we guide people through decisions that will affect their day-to-day living for many years. We are trained to think about your design from a perspective that’s different from your architect, interior designer, or contractor. We think differently, so we ask different questions.

Why invest in that perspective at the start of your project?

It’s simply wise spending.