Restoring a House for Every Body
In the early 1970s, when the house was built, it must have seemed like something from another planet. With its rounded, porthole-style windows and doors and its bubble skylights, it would have looked less like a home than a spaceship that had landed in the woods of northwestern Rhode Island, in a small town called Foster.
And in some ways, the structure was equally futuristic. A collaboration between Marc Harrison, an industrial designer, and his students at the Rhode Island School of Design, it was a showcase for what is now known as universal design — a place where people of all ages and abilities could be comfortable. A house for every body.
The building, which was recently restored by Mr. Harrison’s daughter, Natasha, a glass sculptor and the executive director of The Newport Tree Conservancy, and her husband, Ben Randall, a professional woodworker, was laid out to accommodate anyone who might have mobility issues or use a wheelchair. Not that you would notice those accommodations. Most of them are hidden in plain sight.
The light switches are flat. The outlets are raised to hip height. All the door handles and faucets are levers. The interior of the house is on one level, with wide doorways and no thresholds. The kitchen has pullout counters, a stove set at counter height with a door that opens like a cupboard and a sink that drains from the back, so you could wheel right up to it and not hit the drainpipe with your legs.
Marc Harrison, an industrial designer who taught at the Rhode Island School of Design, envisioned the house as a kit of parts that could be clipped together and bolted using basic tools — no experience required.Credit…Tony Luong for The New York Times
“Marc looked at everything through the eyes of the disabled body, and he believed if he solved the issues for a disabled person, he would have solved the issues for everyone,” said John Behringer, an industrial designer who was a colleague of Mr. Harrison’s at RISD. “He always said that the closer you got to solving the functional relationship of the object to the human being, the more pure the object became.”
Mr. Harrison is probably best known for redesigning the Cuisinart food processor a few years after the house was built. In doing so, he applied the same principles — drawing from studies of how people with arthritis, Parkinson’s disease and impaired eyesight use kitchen tools — to create a machine that could be operated by anyone. He replaced the tiny power buttons with paddle-like switches, streamlined and enlarged the work-bowl handle and made the plug bigger, among other innovations.
Mobility issues were not in his brief. Cuisinart’s owner and creator, Carl Sontheimer, an MIT-educated engineer and entrepreneur, had simply asked Mr. Harrison to refine the machine, a modestly successful adaptation of an imposing French blender marketed to American cooks.
But Mr. Harrison had his own ideas. He had had a profound experience, as he put it, when he was 11 and a sledding accident sent him into a monthslong coma, after which he had to relearn how to move and speak. Years later, when he became a designer and educator, he was determined to make systems and objects as easy to use as possible, and to sensitize his students to the drawbacks and the possibilities of the man-made world. In short, he was a pioneer in universal design, a term coined in the late 1970s by Ronald L. Mace, an architect who had used a wheelchair since contracting polio as a child.
The new Cuisinart, which appeared in 1978, turned what had been a drab-looking machine with unlovely signage into a stylish, must-have kitchen tool — an aspirational object for the aspirational kitchen — and a design icon. Its pure lines were the inspiration for early Macintosh computers; Steve Jobs had admired Cuisinarts on the shelves at Macy’s.
The Cuisinart’s success was perhaps not surprising to Mr. Harrison, because he believed that if you designed for all abilities, you couldn’t help but make better products. So when he was asked to rethink the American home as a showcase for prefabricated components — also known as manufactured or industrialized housing — he and his students tackled the assignment the same way. And then they built the house themselves, right down to the furniture.
What they came up with was a knockout, although it had an awkward name: the ILZRO House, for the International Lead Zinc Research Organization, the trade group that funded it, whose members were eager to get into the housing market. (It was Mr. Harrison’s practice to bring industry and government sponsors and commissions into his classroom.)
The house was designed like a LEGO toy, a kit of parts that clipped together and then were bolted using basic tools — no experience required. No part was so big or heavy that it needed any lifting equipment. And the pieces could be delivered in flat packs (as Ikea furniture would later be) on flatbed trailers.
The heady idea was that this form of construction would cut costs with its efficiencies, and with its material — zinc panels filled with foam — which could be recycled. (The cost was estimated at $20 a square foot, or about $133 today.) Maintenance costs would also be reduced, because zinc develops an appealing patina and doesn’t need to be painted or repainted. (Think of the roofs of Paris!) It was soundproof, fireproof, bug proof, thermally efficient and, cunningly, magnetic, so that the sleek light fixtures (cone-shaped sconces in the bedrooms) and the magnetized picture hangers Mr. Harrison designed could be attached firmly to the walls and moved around easily.
He and his family lived in the house until 1978, when he sold it to a pair of RISD professors, Gerald and Lorraine Howes. After they divorced, Ms. Howes kept the house, maintaining it fastidiously. When she sold it recently to Ms. Harrison and Mr. Randall, there wasn’t all that much to fix up. But the couple, who have no plans to live there, were intent on preserving the place as an important part of Mr. Harrison’s legacy. And RISD professors are already including tours of it in their courses.
On a recent morning, nestled in a sea of ferns, the house sparkled. Mr. Randall had rebuilt the beds and refinished the low-slung sofas, making sure to reupholster them in orange fabric — an essential hue in the palette of the early 1970s. (The original was rusty brown.) Ms. Harrison demonstrated the home’s universal design features: the sturdy pullout “counter” under the oven; the chest-high acrylic storage tubs, for pantry items like pasta; the overall flow of the space.
Mr. Harrison always focused on the human experience: How did people move through space; what were the steps involved in their daily tasks; and how could he design to streamline those tasks?
Ms. Harrison recalled spending time in the place as a child, sleeping in the bunk bed her father had built for her — it felt like being in a ship’s cabin, she said — and the endless pasta meals that served as tests for the Cuisinart’s pasta attachment, which Mr. Harrison was developing. She also remembered the bad-tempered llama that lived in the barn/studio nearby, terrorizing her father’s students. There, he worked nights making prototypes. “The smell of burning plastic was the perfume of my childhood,” she said.
The ILZRO house was a prototype for a single-family home, but not only that: It was also a template for temporary shelters, post-disaster housing and multiunit dwellings. When it was completed in 1973, though, the American economy had begun sliding into a recession, and the building industry fell apart. The ILZRO house became, as Mr. Harrison put it, “an instant modern relic.”
Prefab housing has a long history of never quite taking off. Perhaps the highest (and the lowest) moment came in the mid-20th century, with a government-backed effort to address the postwar housing shortage with enamel-coated steel houses made by the Lustron Corporation at a plant in Ohio. The project failed miserably, tanked by the cost of steel and shipping, as well as, one could argue, the rather grim design. In 2021, prefabricated — or “non-site built,” to use the industry term — single-family homes accounted for just 2 percent of the total of homes constructed, according to census data and analysis from the National Association of Home Builders. That was down from 7 percent in 1998, the highest percentage in the last three decades.
For his part, Mr. Harrison saw his house as a failure. But Bess Williamson, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the author of the 2019 book “Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design,” said it may be the rare example of a place built for accessibility, before widespread laws requiring it, that has survived intact. “Even FDR’s house has been upgraded and altered,” she said, referring to Top Cottage, the retreat the former president built at Springwood, his estate in Hyde Park, N.Y. (He was paralyzed from the waist down after contracting polio at 39.) Ms. Williamson added, “Most early disability sites were ad hoc and have not been preserved.”
Like the Cuisinart, which she described as the first mainstream product designed for accessibility, the ILZRO house is a milestone in the history of disability and design.
The ideas and innovations in its kitchen showed up much later, in RISD’s Universal Kitchen, a 1990s project five years in the making. It aimed to solve, in Mr. Harrison’s words, the disaster that was the modern kitchen, which he thought was so poorly conceived and unaccommodating that it could disable the healthiest cook. The project, which he oversaw along with Jane Langmuir, a professor of interior architecture, and Peter Wooding, an industrial designer, involved the participation of more than 100 students, who set out to deconstruct the conventional kitchen. Their solutions included a pop-up dishwasher, a medley of refrigerators, some as small as drawers, pullout counters and appliances, a pasta station and other flourishes. The kitchen came in three sizes, which were exhibited in 1998 at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, in a show called “Unlimited by Design.”
Toward the end of the project, Mr. Harrison learned he had Lou Gehrig’s disease, otherwise known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S. That he would find himself restricted in his abilities and using a wheelchair after a lifetime of designing for such conditions is an odd twist of fate. He died before the show opened, and the project was dedicated to him.
“Marc always said he didn’t want to design objects that were for the prime of your life, but for your whole life,” said Khipra Nichols, who heads RISD’s industrial design department, as Mr. Harrison once did.
Mr. Nichols recalled walking through the ILZRO house when he was a student. “It struck me as a purposeful design, very clean and with nothing out of place,” he said. “At the time, I didn’t yet understand what it took to make something like that.”
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