To the untrained eye, there is nothing remarkable about the Mast house. It's just another beige ranch along Scottsdale's Cactus Corridor: Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a block wall around a tidy backyard — the usual.
That apparent ordinariness — although misleading — isn't an insult, said Phil Pangrazio, president and CEO of Ability360, which owns the house. Although it isn't obvious, the property has been updated from its tract home origins to make it fully accessible to people using wheelchairs and walkers.
The redesign demonstrates, Pangrazio said, how a house can add accessibility without losing its domestic appeal.
"You should be able to go into a home that's accessible and it shouldn't look accessible," he said. "It should be seamless to the eyeball. That was our goal."
Ability360, a Phoenix-based non-profit that supports independent living for people with disabilities, is not generally in the housing business. The organization inherited the house from Robert Mast, an airline mechanic and engineer who died in 2003.
Mast himself had a significant disability, according to Pangrazio, and wanted Ability360 to use his former residence to provide transitional housing for clients who might need a temporary home after being discharged from a hospital or rehabilitation facility.
The individuals and families who stay in the Mast house are there for only a few weeks. But having a safe, welcoming place to stay during those weeks can be crucial, Pangrazio said, since they usually follow an injury or illness that has resulted in a major change in lifestyle.
People adapting to a disability often need time to find permanent housing that will meet their new needs — and many still have to get comfortable using a wheelchair or walker. One of the first things they discover is how few of the buildings around them are designed for wheels.
The Mast house, in its original incarnation, wasn't particularly welcoming to people using mobility devices.
As in most houses, the interior floors were four inches above the exterior grade, creating a barrier right at the start. The hall and interior doorways were too narrow to navigate in a wheelchair; the bathrooms were almost impossible to use; and the galley kitchen wasn't wide enough to turn around in.
Even if a person in a wheelchair could maneuver into the kitchen, they still had to cope with a sink too high to reach comfortably and a microwave mounted above the stove where, said Pangrazio, “it wasn’t doing any good at all.”
Ability360 remodeled everything, following principles known as "universal design."
"The idea," Pangrazio said, "is to build an environment so it works for everyone. It's universal, meaning it should serve everybody."
At the Mast house, that idea was matched with a desire to prove that accessibility can be attractive, said Darrel Christenson, Ability360's vice president for community integration.
"If you're new to a disability, you don't necessarily know what you don't know," he said. "So people can come here and see some options they might not have known that they had. And they see that it can look good, too."
The first goal of accessible design is, literally, getting in the door. Ability360 added concrete ramps at the exterior entrances, along with lower thresholds for a step-free entry.
There are now 36-inch wide doors to offer plenty of wiggle room throughout the home, and lever hardware on those doors that is easier to use, especially for anyone with limited manual dexterity.
However, none of those modifications, noted Christenson, are uniquely advantageous to wheelchair users.
"All of these things are going to benefit everyone, whether you're in a wheelchair or not," he said. "If you're coming home with three or four bags of groceries, what's going to be easier for you? A doorknob or a lever? A narrow door or a wider one? If you're pushing a stroller or a bicycle, don't you want a step-free entry, too?"
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To further improve universal usability, the wall switches were lowered to 48 inches and electric outlets were raised to 15 inches above the floor — making both easier to reach from either a standing or seated position — and tiny toggle switches were replaced with wider rocker-style controls.
While the measurements were specified by accessibility needs, the implementation used ordinary home-construction materials.
"It's the same outlet, the same wiring, everything," Christenson said. "You just need to think about how everyone is going to use it before you put it in. So you get significant benefit with no extra cost."
Likewise, the wood-laminate flooring was a strategic addition — since a smooth surface is easier to roll over than thick carpet — but it is also an aesthetic preference for homeowners of all abilities.
Even the appliances chosen for the Mast house are popular for a variety of reasons, Christenson noted.
"A front-loading washer is more efficient, and it's accessible for everyone," he said. "So is a side-by-side fridge or a range with the knobs on the front so you don't have to reach across the burners. Those features are popular because it's just a good feature, but then, oh — it's accessible, too."
Although the house's upgrades have universal appeal, the renovations were targeted for residents using wheelchairs.
By removing the cramped hallway and widening the kitchen, Ability360 made the entire house easier to navigate. A new, roll-in shower in the master bath is both fully accessible and elegant, with decorative tile and plenty of room for a bench. Both bathrooms have modern-looking grab bars in the showers and next to the toilets.
In the kitchen, the cabinets were lowered to put the work surfaces at a more convenient 34-inches above the floor — and a new microwave sits directly on the counter.
The result, said Pangrazio, "shows how you can make a house more accessible without necessarily making it expensive. There are a lot of very simple things you can do. And it doesn't have to cost a lot or look ugly."
Thanks to the successful renovation, Ability360 can not only offer comfortable housing to people who need it, but Pangrazio and Christenson have found another role for the no-longer-ordinary house: as a showcase for affordable accessibility.
The group is working with Valley Leadership on an initiative to educate real estate professionals and housing developers about accessible design, using the Mast house asa model.
The idea, said Christenson, came about a few years ago, when accessibility advocates noticed that MLS listings used for selling houses offered 16 fields to describe a property's garage, but none for its accessibility features.
While there are now 31 such fields, many realtors and developers still don't use them, making it even harder for people with disabilities to find a house that suits them.
"The market is much larger than people realize," Christenson said. "So we want to show that, by including these features, you're enhancing your ability to market to a big chunk of potential customers."
The new campaign, which includes videos and social media outreach, uses pictures of the Mast house to illustrate universal design features like step-free entrances, accessible doors and bathroom grab bars.
Those features, of course, will be labeled. Otherwise, people might think they were looking at just another nice house.