Tag: living with a disability

Disability: Rolling with the Changes

Having lived 46 years with Muscular Dystrophy, “The Strength Coach,” Greg Smith has endured constant change for the worse. Every year, becomes physically weaker. But his accomplishments and satisfaction with life grow stronger every day.

Greg Smith is the author of the best-selling, “On A Roll: Reflections from America’s Wheelchair Dude with the Winning Attitude,” and founder of the14-year-running syndicated radio show “On A Roll: Talk Radio on Life & Disability,” later renamed “The Strength Coach Radio Show.” Photo courtesy of Greg Smith.

Although he only weights 65 pounds and cannot sit upright without support, his list of accomplishments is one nearly any adult would envy. Greg has been honored as an “Exceptional American” by the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia; you’ll find his plaque and picture right between Stevie Wonder and Christopher Reeve.  Greg’s remarkable life story was revealed to over two million Americans in the ‘Audience Award Winning’ PBS documentary film, “On A Roll: Family, Disability and the American Dream,” which aired in 2005.

Greg is an active father of three, and radio and television host. He’s an author and professional speaker and travels the world with a message of inspiration. How does he do it? Greg has become an expert at adapting, at accepting change, and at moving through challenges with great courage. Although I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Greg personally, he’s a long-time friend of my childhood sweetheart, a radio professional who lives in Chicago. Through Aubrey, Greg has become an online friend of mine.

Recently, CNN ran a moving story called “65 Pound Dad.” I have had experience in remodeling for disability, and it reminded me that I wanted to ask Greg about both how he has adapted his home to living with disability, and how he has adapted emotionally. Greg kindly agreed to be interviewed for Living in Comfort and Joy.


Q: Greg, I have three friends with MS, but all of them were diagnosed with it as young adults. You began developing MS as child. Did your parents change the physical layout of their home to foster your independence when you were growing up?

Greg Smith travels the nation as a motivational speaker.

A: Well first of all, I have muscular dystrophy (MD) which is a neuromuscular condition, not multiple sclerosis (MS) which attacks the nervous system.  It is a common mistake.  When I was a young child, I could ambulate very effectively, although with a severe limp which caused my spine to gradually curve to the left.

When I was 13, I had what’s called a spinal fusion.  Metal rods were attached to my spine because I didn’t have the muscles to hold myself upright. I hobbled into the hospital to have that surgery and rolled out three weeks later in a wheelchair.  I could still walk around in the house until my late 20s when the ability sort of drifted away and one day, I realized I couldn’t stand up.

Ever since, I’ve been using a wheelchair fulltime. When I was growing up, my parents didn’t have to modify their home at all for me because I could climb up stairs on my hands and knees and functioned as normally as possible.  It took me longer and was more difficult, but I believe that made me stronger.

Q: What kinds of changes have you made in your home where you live to accommodate your wheelchair?

A:  When we built this home, we wanted a no-step entrance, so the house is built on a flat slab. All of the hallways are a little bit wider and every door is 36” wide. We have ramps leading to the various patios and the deck. The floor plan allows me complete access to the entire ground floor.  There is a guest room and another full bathroom upstairs, but I don’t access that area of the house.

This stunning interior is the dining room of Cynthia Leibrock's Green Mountain Ranch, a showplace and educational center for accessible design.

Q: I know that the wheelchair doesn’t begin to meet all the mobility challenges you face. Having heard your Pepsi story, I know that picking up dropped items and reaching things also poses problems. What kinds of changes in your home or adaptive devices help with those problems?

A:  Well there are some things that are especially difficult for me and picking things up off the floor is one of them.  I have a dressing stick, a long wooden stick with a rubber hook-like mechanism on the end which allows me to reach some things.  I don’t have the strength in my hands and arms to use one of those grabbers effectively, but I’m very good at using my feet to slide things dropped on the floor up against the wall to a height where I can reach them.

It’s amazing how creative a person can get when in need of a certain result.  When something falls on the floor that I need, it’s frustrating, but I know that I can always get it up if necessary.  I know it’s going to be a struggle though. My secret to success is that I look at those situations as opportunities to grow stronger and build the confidence in knowing that no matter what situation I face, I can usually find a way out.

Q: My husband and I had a great friend, Lucille Lockhart, now deceased, who was a great disability access advocate. It’s thanks to her that you will see curb cuts throughout San Francisco. Lucille was wry, and so smart she crackled. She was not about to let anyone think that disability was something that would never impact them. After my husband declined her invitation to serve on an access committee for our church – he told her that he wasn’t qualified because he wasn’t disabled – Lucille snorted and retorted, “That’s just a temporary condition.”

Accessible landscaping near Greg's home. A handsome mix of textures mark the walkways and ramps provide easy access.

It’s true that as we age, almost all of us develop a variety of disabilities. But many, perhaps most, of the elders I know, are in denial about these changes. They limp around the house, clinging to walls almost as frantically as they cling to the notion that they are not mobility impaired. Since I’m specializing in remodeling for disability – sitting here eager and able to guide them in home adaptation – I find this denial doubly frustrating.

You haven’t had the luxury of being able to deny disability and change. How have you coped? And what advice do you have for us aging Baby Boomers when it comes to embracing change and making plans that will (if we can muster our courage) actually extend our independence?

A:  I would argue that I have had the advantage of insight about change… just at an earlier age than most people. With muscular dystrophy, I’ve gradually lost strength and abilities. I understand what it is like to be able to do something one day and then a year later, you can’t do it anymore.  I can’t easily climb into my wheelchair from a bed.  I can still do it, but it requires a lot of effort and it isn’t something I’ll be able to do forever.

I cannot sit up in bed anymore.  I can still turn over in bed but it is a struggle and if I’m under a heavy blanket, forget it!  Sometimes when I wake up in the middle of the night, I have to condition my mind to resist the desire to roll.  To accept it, and just go back to sleep.  I can not dress myself anymore.  I cannot sit upright in this wheelchair without a strap holding me into place.

So I know it’s possible for people to accept change and the loss of abilities and still be able to maintain independence and live an enjoyable life.  I believe independence is the freedom to make all the decisions about how things are done in your life. It doesn’t mean you have to do them without assistance.  It just means you get to decide how and when the help is needed. I think once people embrace that definition of independence, they are free to enjoy life.

Green Mountain Kitchen
Accessible kitchen at Cynthia Leibrock's Green Mountain Ranch

Q: I have a couple disabilities: asthma and hearing loss.  Neither one is immediately visible and sometimes I can “pass” as abled for quite a long time when I’m getting to know people. But in my middle years, I decided not to do that, but instead, to come right out and tell people about my hearing loss – it really helps if they know that they need to look at me when they talk to me.  I need to be able to see their lips to aid my understanding.

I’m thinking about this because I find that when I am redesigning a house to accommodate a disability, one of the things that clients really like is when I can make the accommodations invisible.  I am quite good at this, and would love to find more clients who want my services. I understand that people just hate the idea of their home “looking like a hospital.” I don’t know how much of that is related to personal taste and how much of it has to do with accommodations “announcing” one’s disability to visitors. Or even to family.

Cynthia Leibrock, the doyenne of high-end, universal design – and an extremely gracious person –  always makes a point of making disability accommodations invisible to visitors. Those who visit her showplace, Green Mountain Ranch, just see a gorgeous home.

This prompts me to ask how your kids and friends have reacted to the accommodations in your home. Do they like the accommodations? Hate them? Not really notice? And how did all that make you feel?

A:  I don’t think our home is built in a way that makes it obvious that a person with a disability lives here.  There is no step to enter and the halls and doorways are a bit wider, but I don’t think that is at all noticeable. It is a beautiful home. I don’t think accessible has to be ugly.

Q: What room of the house is hardest for you to use, and why? What have you done about that?

A:  The kitchen is somewhat inaccessible to me but that is because I live with my parents and my mother has her way of doing things. I know that we could make the kitchen more accessible, but I don’t cook, so it’s not really an issue.

Q: Do you have a roll-in shower? Do you use a bathtub? And if so, what modifications have you made so that you can use it?

A:  I have a roll-in shower but I use a shower bench and have someone assist me transferring out of my wheelchair onto the bench.

Q: What advice do you have for me, as an interior designer and home remodeler who is interested in helping people to adapt their homes to overcome mobility impairments?

The front door to Greg's house - there's no step to impede his wheelchair.

A: Well, first of all, I would like to see a day where home designers and builders start thinking “someday, someone with a disability is going to live in this house, and somebody with a disability is going to want to visit this house.”  I think it is entirely possible to build all homes with at least one no-step entrance and bathroom doors wide enough for a wheelchair to fit through.

The concept of “Visitability” was introduced by Eleanor Smith of Atlanta many years ago. She has made significant progress in her efforts to make all new homes include basic accessibility including at least one no-step entrance, doors 32 inches wide and at least one half-bath on the first floor.

Q: I’d like to give you a chance to pitch your motivational speaking here in my blog. Tell me about where you’re going to be and what kind of gigs your seeking.

Thanks for the opportunity. I specialize in teaching people how to turn their challenges and weaknesses into incredible strengths.  I love to speak to audiences and share the lessons I’ve learned from the unique perspective I have as a person with a severe disability.

I think my knowledge can be useful to anyone. In my presentations, audiences will discover the three ingredients to building inner strength and learn how to use the power of addictions to their advantage. I love to roll around the platform in my power wheelchair and connect with my audiences.  I always get a few laughs. I always get a few tears. And I always have people come up to me afterwards and say how much they have changed since hearing me speak.

If anyone wants to hear me speak, they can call me at 228-424-3896 and we can find a local university to sponsor my visit.

Greg, I hope that someone will bring you out here to San Francisco to speak. I have enjoyed interviewing you over the net, but I’m sure I would enjoy meeting you in person far more. Thanks for joining me here at Living in Comfort and Joy.

Resource Links


I often end my posts with an inspirational verse. This one is a favorite of Greg’s.

Greg Smith in the broadcasting booth.

Out of the night that covers me
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.


Obstacles to Overcome: An Accessible Kitchen

Your average kitchen is an obstacle course for someone in a wheelchair!

I got a dramatic demonstration of that about a month ago when Dr. Rhoda Olkin, a psychologist, professor, and author, volunteered to give me a tour of the kitchen in the office building where we work. Last week, I showed her the kitchen I designed after that demonstration: my “succulent, sustainable”  kitchen. I went away from that meeting with a lump in my throat, feeling  proud and inspired.

Denim Moss from Icestone. It sparkles with chips of the post-consumer glass used to make it.

The next day, I attended a memorial service for my friend, Kari Varland. Initially, Kari was my real estate agent. Losing her has been a heartbreak for me, and for dozens of others who gathered to remember her. She gave so many of us not only homes, but also wisdom and community.

I have come away from these two experiences renewed in my desire to design beautiful, sustainable, and empowering homes for my fellow boomers and folks who are overcoming disabilities. Although this has been a tough year for me, the obstacles in my path are far less tangible than those that Rhoda encounters, and they should be more surmountable than those that Kari faced.

Encountering Kitchen Obstacles

During my initial meeting with Rhoda, the first surprise came as we left her office. Rhoda invited me to precede her, and then followed in her powered wheelchair. I had always wondered why she had a yellow dog leash hanging on the outside of her office door. Now I learned the answer.

Dr. Rhoda Olkin, Distinguished Professor, California School of Professional Psychology, Alliant International University
Dr. Rhoda Olkin, Distinguished Professor, California School of Professional Psychology, Alliant International University

To reach the door hardware  – an ADA-compliant level-style door handle – Rhoda’s arm would have to be about a foot and a half longer than it is! To solve this problem, she grabs the dog leash as she wheels by and pulls the door closed behind her.

The kitchen, however, presents far more problems than the office:

  • Counter-productive counters: It’s impossible for Rhoda to reach anything placed at the back of the 24″ deep counters.
  • Out-of-reach shelves: The upper cupboards would be totally beyond her reach except for the fact that Rhoda’s wheelchair is equipped with a lift that will raise her seat about a foot.
  • Fridge door barricade: The refrigerator is placed in a corner on the narrow side of the room, so it’s impossible for her to approach it from the side. She can’t open the fridge from the front either, because the door would have swing through the space occupied by her wheelchair.
  • Cattle chute layout: Once she’s in, she has to laboriously back out of the kitchen because a trash can and recycling bins have been placed along the wall, narrowing the center aisle so much that there isn’t enough room for her to turn around.
Introducing Rhoda Rails! See the double tracks that lead from the cooktop to the sink? They are strips of metal inscribed into the countertop, and they stand about 1/8" above the counter surface. They would allow Rhoda to scoot a heavy pan of hot pasta off of the cooktop and around the corner to the sink to empty the water. It's very difficult for her to lift a pot like that; it takes two hands. If both of your hands are occupied with holding a pot of scalding water, there's no way to move or steer a wheelchair!

Rhoda gave me the kitchen tour because I had asked her if she would comment upon plans I was drawing for a demonstration kitchen. Although it wasn’t meant for a real client, I planned this kitchen to be accessible for someone who has been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and is slowly losing her mobility. “Carla” can walk now, but she needs to plan her home in a way that will accommodate first a walker, and then later, a wheelchair. (Although I’m not working with them, I actually know two people who are in this situation.)

The process of planning this kitchen was an eye-opener for me, and my presentation to Rhoda was one of the most inspiring design experience I have had — a highlight of what has been a very tough year. (Kari is one of three friends who have died from cancer. Meanwhile, I have had numerous inquiries about my design business, but little paying work. The economy is bad and at times, the obstacles seem insurmountable. In moments of despair, I have thought about pulling the plug on this blog, my business plan, or both.) But for now, I will keep on keepin’ on.

A Tour of the Succulent,
Sustainable Kitchen

Carla’s kitchen was designed for two-cooks: Carla and her husband Sam. (See bottom of this post for an overhead view of the kitchen.) The south portion is designed for Sam, the chief chef. It features two ovens and a state-of-the-art induction cooktop. These features are laid out so that they are just steps from the refrigerator, pantry, and sink, a layout that makes for very convenient “kitchen triangle” that meets the requirements I talked about in my earlier blog, “One Rump or Two and Other Kitchen Conundrums.”

Carla's kitchen features multiple height counters: 33", 36" and 42" from the floor for the comfort of cooks who are sitting, standing and for both children and adults. A 42" coffee-bar height cupboard holds a chef's convection oven, while to the right, a 36" high counter holds a Fagor oven, which features a door that opens to the side.

The north part of the kitchen is designed for Carla, who is  Sam’s helper, a “sous chef” who prepares salads and vegetables, mixes drinks, and entertains while the haute cuisine comes together a few steps away. With its 33″ high counters and 9″ high toekicks, this area meets the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The south kitchen, by contrast, is meant to be “visitable”. It has regular height counters and toekicks. It’s designed for Sam, but has special features that enable a person in a wheelchair to easily use it.

In addition, I opened walls and windows to draw in plenty of sunlight, to save energy, and meet California’s new Title 24 energy codes. The succulent, sustainable kitchen uses some gorgeous, green materials, including Icestone counters, Plyboo bamboo cabinets, Hakatai glass tile, and Marmoleum linoleum floors (I have written about most of these in previous blogs).

I drew the color palette from a handsome plant called a sedum, a plant that is often used on vegetated roofs. Because I was thinking about both plants and people, I called the design “succulent sustainability.” (It turned out that Rhoda loves sedum.) My plans wound up including a host of features that were intended to be at once beautiful, beautifully invisible in function, and liberating in their use.

Rhoda’s Reaction

Storage trundle
Storage here is provided by a wheeled, trundle cart. It can be moved in another area to provide legroom to enable someone in a wheelchair to use the cooktop. In addition, it provides an easy way for everyone to get at heavy pots and pans.

I think I must have succeeded, because when I showed Rhoda the completed plans, she said, “It’s beautiful! I love the colors!”

When I started to explain the accessibility features, her voice cracked a little and she said, “You took every single thing I showed you and found a solution for it!”

“It’s rare to find a designer who really understands the barriers and is able to see creatively how to erase them,” said Rhoda. “To do it with the beauty of the design that Nicolette has created is amazing.  The Rhoda Rail impressed me as an example of really thinking from the perspective of the user in a wheelchair, and mixing design with function to achieve an elegant solution.”

Given that my demonstration project seems to have been such a success, I thought I would share some of the accessibility ideas from Carla’s kitchen with my blog readers.

Access Features in the Visitable Kitchen

The visitable, south kitchen includes:

  • Rhoda Rails – sleek silver tracks that protect the counter and enable a seated cook to safely scoot a heavy pan off of the low-profile induction cooktop and across the counter without scratching the surface (see drawing).
  • A wheeled, pot trundle cart under the cooktop that is completely removable to provide leg room for a wheelchair user (see drawing).
  • A remote-control hood over the cooktop.
  • A side-opening Fagor oven that allows an easy approach for a wheelchair user who can get in close to lift hot, heavy pans.
  • Removable shelving under the sink to allow the cabinet to be easily converted for a wheelchair user.
  • Removable, wheeled storage carts that form the front sides of the pantry, but roll out and provide access on both sides to stored items.

Features of the ADA Accessible Kitchen

The north kitchen is fully wheelchair accessible, with ADA-height toekicks and 33″ high counters throughout. Other accessibility features include:

  • Accessible dish washer drawers – it’s much easier to reach into a drawer than a recessed cave, and the drawers can be run individually to save water.
  • A Hafele insert that enables one to pull down the upper cabinets.
  • Sliding cabinet doors that are easily approached from the side by a wheelchair user; these are inset with a translucent panel of resin that encapsulates natural reeds (Varia Thatch).
  • A grab bar that is also useful as a towel rack.
  • Swinging doors into the dining room – easy to open for servers who have their hands full as well as a person in a wheelchair. An insert of translucent 3-Form Varia Thatch here enables a server or wheelchair user to know if someone is on the other side.
  • Removable storage under the sink that allows for easy conversion when Carla needs to trade the storage space on the shelves for knee space when seated in a wheelchair.
  • Taps on the sink mounted at the side for easy reach from seated position (this is also true in the south kitchen).


In Memoriam: Kari Varland

In memory of Kari Varland, who was not only a good friend and a great real estate agent, but also a role model and an inspiration.

When my friend Kari was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last April, I wrote about my grief in a post called “Object Lessons”. (I referred to  her as “Katie” rather than Kari, to protect her privacy.) At the time, I said:

While I know that none of us gets out of this life alive – it’s a question of when, rather than if we’re leaving – it’s especially hard to cope with the idea of someone dying in their mid-forties, let alone a bright, energetic former gymnast…

If there’s a lesson in this tragedy, I think it’s this: Be here now. Live fully now, because we don’t know how many days we have left to us. Ironically, the only way to be fully present in the here and now is to fully let go of what we have lost; you simply can’t be fully present if you’re living in the past.

Kari always lived in the present; she was chatty, energetic and, in business, she knew how to cut to the chase. She will remain vibrantly alive for many years to come in the memories of the many people who gathered to remember her yesterday. We remembered Kari as “a pushy broad” and someone who could eat, talk and drive all at the same time. We also remembered her as someone who gave parcels of food to street people, who would give back chunks of her commission to set things right for her clients, and who had a magic touch for bringing people together.

That’s why, in April, when she was diagnosed, her friends came together to create a silent auction to raise money to support her in her final months. As one vowed, “It seems that there’s no safety net for a self-employed person with a fatal disease. But if there’s no safety net, we’ll just have to weave one.”

Kari’s friends wanted to do that, because of the way she had supported them – us – through the difficult times in our lives. In both her life, and in the way she ended her life, she had the magic of bringing people together, creating friendships and community. As one friend said, “She left us with homes and with community — what a legacy!”

Kari had a magic for solving problems and creating connections — it’s something I aspire to, though I doubt that I will ever approach her energy and effervescence. I can only hope that I can be as much of a guide to my own clients, and that half as many people will show up for my memorial when the time comes. The following words come from an obituary written to Kari in the San Francisco Chronicle:

“Far more than an agent who helped with a transaction, Kari’s role was that of a guide and confidante, who used her wisdom and sensitivity to help her clients navigate through one of the most important decisions of their lives. Many of her clients became lifelong friends. In February of 2009, Kari was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Kari lived with her illness over the past year just as she lived her entire life — with dignity, courage, passion, grace, warmth and an endless concern for others.”

Rest in peace, Kari. I will try to follow your example and your star, and I will miss you always.

Aging, Autos and Walkable Neighborhoods

About a year ago, my 83-year-old mother blacked out at the wheel, drove into a phone pole and totaled her car. Amazingly, she wasn’t killed. She walked away with little more than scratches. But ever since, I have worried that her dependence on driving is shortening her life in slower and more insidious ways.

Fact is, car dependence is unhealthy for all seniors, not just my mother.
A mini park in my very walkable neighborhood
A mini park in my neighborhood

This post will look at how walkable neighborhoods figure into the aging-in-place equation – that is, how long and how comfortably we can live in our own homes without having to move into some kind of assisted living.

As always, I invite you to engage me in discussion about these issues. To spark collective thinking, I have also included a poll at the end of this post. It asks just one question: How well could you get along without your car for a full month? (So far, the responses are weirdly reversing the bell curve!) I have also discovered a fabulous website that maps where you live, shows how far away the necessary amenities are located, and gives you an immediate “walk score.” You might want to keep those items in mind as you read on.

Isn’t This an Interior Design Blog?

Writing about what’s outside my door is a bit a departure for this blog. I usually write about sustaining a life of comfort and joy inside the house. But as regular readers know, sustainable living is not only a leitmotif in my writing, it has also been a frequent topic lately. In researching the post I wrote two weeks ago on Greening the Little Red Schoolhouse, I stumbled across the news that the United States Green Building Council, which created the  LEED system, is currently developing ratings for sustainable neighborhoods.

Another part of my Neighborhood
Another part of my neighborhood

That intrigued me. Because I have worked for nonprofits and research organizations that were: 1) providing alternatives to solo driving to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution, 2) trying to prevent domestic violence and 3) developing and evaluating interventions to improve public schools, I’m familiar with several fascinating, and seemingly unrelated, bodies of research. As I read about LEED for Neighborhoods, however, I began to see connection both to those bodies of research and also to lessons I have learned in overcoming personal challenges with asthma and depression. Voila, a blog topic!

But what does all this have to do with my mother and her car? Reading about sustainable neighborhoods has convinced me that anyone who wants to age in place – my mother, you, me, your elderly auntie – needs not only to think about how to sustain health and happiness inside the house, but also about whether the location of that house is going to damage their health and well-being by forcing them to be car-dependent.

To put it bluntly, I believe that our dependence on cars is killing us. That damage may be done in the blink of an eye – as happened when my mother lost consciousness at the wheel – or it may be a more-gradual abrasion of physical, emotional and social health. Here’s why I say that.

Cars Harm Our Physical Health

Air pollution in China
Air pollution in China

If you’ve ever lived close to a busy street or a freeway, you’ve seen the grit and grime that accumulates on your furniture. The same gunk is accumulating in your lungs. You’ve seen photos of the orange-brown smog that hangs over the Los Angeles basin. You may have even stumbled across the interesting fact that traffic cops in China now live only about 40 years before they are killed off by air pollution. Improvements in mileage and smog control devices have been outpaced by the sheer number of miles we drive. As a result, the EPA has stated that:

…motor vehicles (onroad) still contribute significantly to air pollution, accounting nationwide for a quarter of the CFCs in the air, 51 percent of the carbon monoxide, 30 percent of the carbon dioxide, 34 percent of the nitrogen oxides, nearly one-third of VOCs emitted in the United States… transportation is a significantly greater source of pollution than are industrial sources, power plants or small businesses.

There, of course, are conclusive links between air pollution and a host of lung and heart diseases. The American Heart Association published its first official statement on air pollution and cardiovascular disease in 2004. After  reviewing the scientific evidence, an expert panel stated that [even] short-term exposure to elevated particulate matter, which includes auto  emissions, “significantly contributes to increased acute cardiovascular mortality, particularly in certain at-risk subsets of the population.” More recently, Dr. Barbara Hoffmann, head of the unit of environmental epidemiology at the University of Duisburg-Essen, measured calcium build-up in the arteries to explore the impact of living close to auto exhaust. She found that  people living within 160 feet of heavy traffic suffered a 63% higher risk of coronary artery calcification than people living 642 feet away!

But the health effects are not limited to damage from air pollution. LEED for Neighborhoods references scientific evidence that tells us that:

…physical inactivity can lead to obesity and other more serious illnesses. Lack of mobility and resulting isolation may be linked to depression and overall lower recovery from illnesses, which can lead to early death. Thus, urban environments that are not conducive to walking and bicycling and provide few transportation alternatives for older people can have significant health impacts on this growing portion of the American population.

Regular exercise is absolutely essential for older people. Our balance, mobility and flexible follow the rule of nature that says that if you don’t use it, you lose it. My fellow blogger Stan Cohen, who teaches movement seminars for seniors, writes about the importance of regular exercise as we age. In his “Intuitive Movement” blog he says, “Practicing movement routines helps you live life better and do daily living activities than without it. Plain and simple truth. The more you practice, and do the exercises, the more you will be able to do. It makes no matter what age you are. You can make improvements, be more self-sufficient, do more life activities and live healthier. ”

We cling to our cars because we want to be independent, mobile and self-sufficient, while ironically, we live in landscapes that undermine our personal mobility. Urban carscapes impose physical barriers to walking and bicycling – the most frequent forms of exercise seniors use – and they also isolate us.

Alice Wallace, longtime friend of the author
Alice Wallace, longtime friend of the author and beloved member of the Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco

An example: After the accident, the State of Arizona suspended my mother’s driver’s license, grounding her in the most debilitating way. The nearest grocery store is about two miles away as the crow flies. A pedestrian trying to reach it would need to walk nearly double that distance, coping with meandering and dead-end streets and detouring around fences and brick walls. The only option available to my carless mother was a senior transportation charter that arrived after hour-and-a-half waits, making each social, medical, or work trip a half-day affair. I fully understood my mother’s jubilance when Arizona returned her license. At the same time, I question the state’s wisdom in safeguarding her health and that of others endangered by a senior who may be a danger behind the wheel.

That brings me to my final point about autos and bodily health. When car bodies and human bodies collide, the results are devastating. My dear friend Alice Wallace, pictured above at right, was hit and killed on busy 19th Avenue, a dangerous, in-town extension of California Route 1 here in San Francisco. Alice had moved out of her home into an assisted living facility only a few weeks earlier at the age of 86. Alice was an avid walker who swam laps every day, and given the circumstances of her death, I consider her death a fatality that can be attributed to living in an environment that favors the convenience of cars over the health of human beings.

Interestingly enough, moving out into suburban situations like my mom’s does not lessen the likelihood of car crashes. The toll from car crashes is actually higher in the suburbs than it is in high-density urban neighborhoods. Here’s LEED again:

In general, research shows that any reduction in the amount or speed of vehicle travel will result in a reduction of collision rates. Increasing density reduces both factors. More specifically, studies find that per capita automobile crashes are about four times higher for residents in low-density suburbs than in higher-density urban neighborhoods. All else being equal, a doubling of the neighborhood density corresponds to a five percent reduction in traffic accidents per capita…

Cars Undermine Human Connections

The top map shows social connectedness with light colors indicating the lowest levels of connection and dark colors showing highest levels of connection. Nevada stands out in this map for its lack of social capital. The map directly above shows suicide rates, with red indicating the areas highest rates. Look at Nevada again!  The Radical Cartography blog, which features these two maps, has an amazing collection of maps and is well worth a visit.

Human beings are social creatures and become depressed when isolated. (This is also true for many other mammals.) When we’re depressed, we suffer chemical changes that degrade our physical health and put us at increased risk for a variety of diseases and chronic conditions. The connection between social deprivation and poor health has been documented for both communities and individuals.

I mentioned earlier that one of the health issues I have struggled with has been depression. A year ago, I was fortunate to be treated at Kaiser Permanente, where I was taught to alter both mood and mental chemistry through Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). My physician cited numerous long-term studies and stated flatly that three things have been absolutely proven to be effective in lifting depression: 1) exercise, 2) social activities, and 3) SSRI (selective serotonin uptake inhibitor) medications. “If you don’t want to take meds,” he said, “You’d better make darn sure you say ‘yes’ every time someone asks you to do something remotely social –  and you’d better get regular exercise.” He then went on to say that untreated depression was serious, leading not only to suicides, but also to a dramatically increased risk of developing Alzheimers.

The importance of social connections is further underscored by public health studies that show dramatic correlations between longevity and social activity, or conversely, disease and social isolation. That correlation can be seen graphically in the two maps at the left, which are drawn from the blog Radical Cartography. The top map charts the rate of suicide in the US while the lower map, from Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, graphs the social interconnectedness of US states based a weighted combination of the following fourteen statistics:

  • Rate of serving on a committee of a local organization during previous year
  • Rate of serving as an officer of a local organization during previous year
  • Mean number of club meetings attended during previous year per person
  • Mean number of group memberships per person
  • Turnout in presidential elections, 1988 and 1992
  • Rate of attending town or school meetings
  • Number of nonprofits per person
  • Rate of working on a community project during previous year
  • Rate of volunteerism
  • Rate of agreement with “I spend a lot of time visiting friends”
  • Rate of entertaining at home during previous year
  • Rate of agreement with “Most people can be trusted.”
  • Rate of agreement with “Most people are honest.”
  • Civic/social organizations per person

While it’s true that having a car makes it easier to go see a friend, the fact that we must get into our cars and leave our neighborhoods every day has led to sprawling development, long commutes and bedroom communities in which neighbors really know very little about one another. In addition, most of us have to make an appointment to see a friend. Net result: someone like my mother really can’t count on her neighbors for social or emotional support, or even a ride to the grocery store.

House of the Valley Cats - one of those cats is the author of this blog.
House of the Valley Cats - one of those cats is the author of this blog.

A hundred and fifty years ago, almost everyone walked to work, and the “commute” took five to minutes to half an hour. The progress of the past century has made hour-long commutes common, and longer commutes are associated with high blood pressure, loss of family time, and increased absences from work.

I have had my own struggles with commuting. Years ago, I lived in Hinsdale, Illinois, and commuted into Chicago for my graduate studies in design. One memorably snowy winter, an oncoming snowstorm trapped thousands of people in downtown Chicago and turned my thirty minute commute into a three-hour, white-knuckle nightmare. I developed a dogged determination to never again live in a place where I was utterly dependent on an automobile to carry on the tasks of daily life.

Fast forward a decade. My career took me to Los Angeles for about a year. While there, I attempted to avoid LA’s freeways by quirkily opting to live where I could walk to work. This is simply not done in LA. Those who try to walk are architecturally punished. My walk, from Bunker Hill to Figueroa Street in downtown LA, was only about six blocks. But it involved having to climb up stairs to cross the roofs of buildings, descending an escalator into an underground shopping mall and dodging shoppers to cross an otherwise pedestrian-proof street! Since I was able bodied and in my twenties, this was merely annoying. For a mobility-impaired person, it would have been impossible.

Moreover, I quickly discovered that other than my job, there was almost nothing to walk to. The nearly abandoned streets did not feel safe at night, and I seldom left my luxury apartment house except to visit its whirlpool spa. I soon began to feel like a prisoner under house arrest. I imagine a great many older people in the US feel that way. In its study “Aging Americans: Stranded Without Options“,  the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership (STPP) found inhat “compared with older divers, older non-drivers in the United States make:

  • 15% fewer trips to the doctor
  • 59% fewer shopping tips and visits to restaurants
  • 65% fewer trips for social, family and religious activities

STPP also found that more than half of all non-drivers aged 65 and over stay at home in a given day, often because they do not have transportation options… Older people use public transportation when it is available… However, only half of older Americans have access to public transportation to meet their daily needs.

So there you have it. This rant pretty much explains why I chose to live in the city, and why, when making plans for aging in place, I chose my Noe Valley neighborhood. (There are some considerable drawbacks too. I live in an area of unwanted seismic activity, in a house badly in need of earthquake retrofitting that I won’t be able to afford for some time.) But for walkability, I would say that my neighborhood rates five stars on the poll.

How would you rate yours?


“Engineering the daily physical activity out of our lives has fueled the obesity epidemic, which in addition to creating health problems, impacts our aging population, who rely heavily on walking and transit to access the services they need.  As landscape architects, we can design active living components back into our communities, working with developers and public officials to make sure people have transportation options besides getting behind the wheel of a car.”

-Susan L.B. Jacobson, FASLA
President of The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)

“Non-elderly people with disabilities face many of the same limitations of transportation as do older people – personal vehicles and taxis may not be accessible to many people who use mobility aids or have sensory impairments.  Barriers on vehicles and on rights of way make it difficult to use public transportation where it is available.  As with older Americans, people with disabilities may be isolated – not by choice.  Paralyzed Veterans of America also supports federal transportation policy that adequately funds public transportation, increases safe and accessible rights of way, and requires inclusive planning so all Americans can move around their communities.”

-Maureen McCloskey
Director of National Advocacy for the Paralyzed Veterans of America

Today more than three and a half million Americans age 65+ risk isolation simply because they don’t drive, and their numbers will explode after 2025 when Boomers enter their 60s, 70s and 80s. Federal, state and local policymakers must start now to plan for the time when Americans who grew up in cars put down their keys for good…”

-Byron Thames
AARP Board Member

Get a Grip: Eco and Ergo Handles

This post is devoted to handles, knobs and pulls – those humble fittings that scarcely merit a thought until they cause trouble. They command our attention only when they break – or when we do, losing strength and digital dexterity due to aging, injury, or arthritis.

Blue sky glass drawer pull from All That Glass.  Size: 4 1/4 Wide X 1 1/2 Projection
Eco and Ergo: Blue sky glass drawer pull from All That Glass. Size: 4 1/4" wide with 1 1/2" outward projection.

Pulls and handles can be ergonomically designed to make it easier to get a grip. Both the choice of materials and the shape of the handle play a role in ease of use. But what’s easy to use can differ quite a bit for differently-abled people.

Ecologically speaking, knobs and pulls, like every other product that we use, should be designed and chosen with an eye not only to how we will use them, but also to what will happen to them after we’re done using them. (I have been reading the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things and becoming keenly aware that the notion of throwing or giving things “away” is wrong-headed. Realistically speaking, there is no “away.” Everything we throw away remains somewhere on earth, piling up in someone else’s back yard or buried in the product graves that we call landfills.)

This post will cover both “eco” handles  – those made from recycled and earth-friendly materials – and “ergo” handles that are designed for comfortable use. In some cases, I have found handles and pulls that meet both eco and ergo requirements and are beautiful as well. They meet my definition of elegant design.

Skipping stone cabinet pulls from Natures Hardware. Theres also a C shaped stone cabinet pull if grasping is a problem.
Eco and Ergo: Skipping stone cabinet pulls from Nature's Hardware. Because the stone is flat, you can hook your fingers underneath and pull with the whole hand. There's also a "C" shaped stone cabinet pull available from the same supplier.

I hope that you will find the discussion that goes along with these finds interesting. If instead, you find yourself amazed that anyone could make choosing a simple drawer pull so complicated, I invite you to simply enjoy the beauty of the fittings I have found.

At the bottom of this post, you will find learning and shopping links that will lead you to suppliers for everything that is pictured here – and more.

Ergonomics and Aging

Ergonomically speaking, drawer pulls that are shaped like the letters “C” or “D” and doorknobs that are levers are far easier to use as we age. The reason? We can exert pressure on them using our large arm muscles rather than having to pinch or grasp with our fingers.

Older people tend to lose strength and/or fine motor control in their hands, making twisting and pinching motions difficult. That’s the case with our friend Joe, whose arthritis has advanced to the point where he can no longer make a fist.  Both “universal design” and “accessible design” propose approaches that attempt to help folks like Joe. Both approaches work, but both have downsides.

This brass lever interior door handle, available from homehardwareplus.com, comes in either a left-hand or right hand model.
Eco: This interior door handle, from homehardwareplus.com, comes in a left- or right-hand model. Lever-style handles are the best choice for those with arthritis, and are also helpful for those whose hands are busy holding onto packages or small children.

Over the past couple decades, interior designers have been researching, debating and getting seriously hepped-up over the competing merits of universal and accessible design. (Who but an interior designer could devote a whole blog post to knobs and handles, for goodness sake?!)

Universal design aims to create products and environments that work for everyone – the young, the old, the tall, the short – instead of just creating things with an “average” user in mind. A universal design kitchen, for example, usually has counters of varying heights, so there’s one area that’s the right height for grandma in her wheelchair,  another for a school-aged child making a peanut butter sandwich, and yet another for dad, who is very tall. Universal design is concerned first and foremost with form, and it eschews frills. Accordingly, the International Style that is associated with universal design has been faulted for monotony and homogeneity. In Cradle to Cradle, authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart write that the International Style has evolved into “a bland uniform structure isolated from the particulars of place – from local culture, nature, energy and material flows…[and] reflect little if any of a region’s distinctness or style.”

DuVerre Kuba Recycled Metal pull from Natures Hardware
Eco and Ergo: DuVerre Kuba Recycled metal D-shaped pull from Nature's Hardware.

Accessible design is generally focused on creating products that work for people with disabilities such as low vision, impaired mobility or limited reach – a continual problem for people who use wheelchairs. Whereas universal design aims for a sleek, modern look, accessible design tends to look sturdy, utilitarian and even institutional. Another drawback is that changes made to accommodate one sort of problem can wind up making life difficult for people with a problem of another sort.

For example, after drinking fountains were lowered to make them accessible for people in wheelchairs, people with bad backs were unhappy about having to stoop down to drink. The universal design compromise mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act has been to install fountains called “high/lows” – a pair of fountains at different heights. This has meant ripping out a lot of metal and rebuilding big chunks of the core plumbing area in many high-rises, an expensive undertaking that has contributed tons of metal and stone to landfill sites.

While universal and accessible design approaches overlap somewhat, both seek to create products that anticipate the physical needs of various groups of people, leading to compromises such as the high/low. If you know that specific individuals are going to use a room, fewer compromises are needed.

So what constitutes sound, elegant design? To my way of thinking, it’s a design that works to enhance the comfort and joy of an interior for you and yours, and one that simultaneously enhances the health and beauty of the earth, now and later. The offerings in this post don’t meet all those requirements in every instance, but they move in the right direction.

Opening the Door with Style and Ease

If functionality were the sole requirement, the fastest and easiest way to enable someone like our friend Joe to cope with a round doorknob would be to put a plastic sheath over it. For $5-$20, you can buy slip-over products that cushion the doorknob and provide greater traction or sheaths that will change the door knob’s shape from round to an oval or a lever.

Victorian styled ornate oval doorknob from House of Antique Hardware
Ergo: Victorian styled ornate oval doorknob from House of Antique Hardware.

I’m afraid that I find these remarkably homely, and I feel bad knowing that since they’re plastic, they are fated to wind up in a landfill where they will wait centuries for archeologists of the future to dig them up. Instead spending $10 to $30 for one of these aids (and being reminded of my disability every time I opened the door!)  I would rather spend $20 to $100 to replace (and recycle) the round door handle. It’s actually easy to replace interior door hardware using nothing more than a screwdriver. Assemblies that hold oval and lever-shaped doorknobs will fit usually fit right into the holes that were drilled for the old hardware assembly.

When it comes to doorknobs that aren’t round, you have a myriad of choices. Your minimalist, modern home might  look great with brass lever door hardware shown above or with  a sleeker version of the same design in brushed chrome.

But what if you live in a Victorian style house? No problem! The Victorians favored ornate oval doorknobs, and the House of Antique Hardware sells oval doorknobs made of many materials. You might choose the brass knobs shown above. Or you might opt for a plain white, black, or brown porcelain, in which case, you could feel good about choosing an environmentally friendly material.

Hand blown doorknobs from Light Impressions in Maine
Eco: Hand-blown doorknobs from Light Impressions in Maine

If you’re looking for a dazzlingly colorful, earth-friendly choice and have no problem gripping a round doorknob, you might want to visit the website of All That Glass. This Portland, Oregon studio creates hand-blown glass doorknobs, as well as a variety of pulls, knobs, and even sinks.

Another supplier of fine art glass doorknobs is Light Impressions. Their work is shown at left. These blown glass creations are so beautiful that they could be considered art or jewelry. Moreover, glass is a green material. Glass is made from silica, a commonplace natural substance that requires no complicated extraction; it’s found in beach sand. Better yet, old glass can be ground up and made into new glass, making it very eco-friendly indeed.

Ocean-Friendly Knobs and Pulls

Turban Shell pull from Pacific Shells
Eco and Ergo: Turban Shell pull from Pacific Shells. Because each shell is unique in size and shape, when they are used as pulls, blind people can use them to differentiate between one drawer and another.

A colorful collection of pulls made from natural sea shells can be found at Pacific Shells. Most of their pulls are made from empty shells that would have otherwise have been thrown out after people have eaten the shellfish that lived in them.

Pacific Shells uses a patented system to strengthen the shells to allow them to resist tension and torsion. Here’s how the hardened shell handles are made:

  • 10% to 30% of the handle is a shell of a shell-fish rejected from the food chain (such as fish bones).
  • 25% to 80% is the handle is filled with sand that  has been mixed with 11% hardening synthetic resin.
  • the resin makes up 3%  to 9% of the shell handle.
  • A metal base makes up 2% to 10% of the item.

Pacific Shells says its “handles are among the most earth-friendliest or ecological products on the market”. The shellfish that produced the shells would been consumed anyway, and their shells would have become trash. Instead of becoming waste, the shells are processed into handsome crafted items.


Woven bamboo knob from Natures Hardware
Eco: Woven bamboo knob from Nature's Hardware. Their offerings include pulls made from bone, antler, shells, wood, recycled metal, stone and bamboo.
  • All That Glass -art glass fittings
  • Aurora Glass – a wonderful organization in Portland, Oregon that recycles glass and upcycles people! Aurora Glass is part of St. Vincent de Paul’s strategic recycling initiative for a healthier community.  All profits from the Aurora Glass Foundry are returned to the community in the form of assistance for homeless and low-income people through emergency services, housing, jobs, training, and other charitable endeavors.
  • Comfort and Joy Interior Design
  • Cradle to cradle overview in Wikipedia
  • Cradle to Cradle: Rethinking Sustainability – article and book review in Alternative Energy News with video and commentary
  • Drawer Pulls, Drawer Handles – the end-all, be-all collection of links to collections of pulls
  • Hafele fittings – source for a vast selection of ergonomically designed pulls, handles, fittings and hard-to-find items such as pull-down shelves and organizers
  • Green Mountain Ranch– Created by interior designer Cynthia Liebrock, this “aging beautifully” ranch house in Livermore, Colorado showcases more than 180 ideas that demonstrate how universal design ideas complement green design. (She is also a wonderful person. After I wrote about Cynthia Leibrock in this blog, she contacted me and spent almost an hour mentoring me on the phone!)
  • Intersel – a very handsome collection of lever-shaped door knobs
  • Light Impressions – art glass fittings
  • MyKnobs.com – every sort of doorknob and pull you can imagine
  • Nature’s Hardware – knobs and pulls made from a variety of natural and recycled materials
  • Pacific Shells – knobs and pulls made from real seashells
  • Susan Goldstick – handcrafted resin pulls and knobs


Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout would not take the garbage out

Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout
Would not take the garbage out!
She’d scour the pots and scrape the pans,
Candy the yams and spice the hams,
And though her daddy would scream and shout,
She simply would not take the garbage out.
And so it piled up to the ceilings:
Coffee grounds, potato peelings,
Brown bananas, rotten peas,
Chunks of sour cottage cheese.
It filled the can, it covered the floor,
It cracked the window and blocked the door
With bacon rinds and chicken bones,
Drippy ends of ice cream cones,
Prune pits, peach pits, orange peel,
Gloopy glumps of cold oatmeal,
Pizza crusts and withered greens,
Soggy beans and tangerines,
Crusts of black burned buttered toast,
Gristly bits of beefy roasts…
The garbage rolled on down the hall,
It raised the roof, it broke the wall…
Greasy napkins, cookie crumbs,
Globs of gooey bubble gum,
Cellophane from green baloney,
Rubbery blubbery macaroni,
Peanut butter, caked and dry,
Curdled milk and crusts of pie,
Moldy melons, dried-up mustard,
Eggshells mixed with lemon custard,
Cold French fries and rancid meat,
Yellow lumps of Cream of Wheat.

Ornamental drawer pulls from artisan Susan Goldstick
Ornamental drawer pulls from artisan Susan Goldstick
At last the garbage reached so high
That finally it touched the sky.
And all the neighbors moved away,
And none of her friends would come to play.
And finally Sarah Cynthia Stout said,
“OK, I’ll take the garbage out!”
But then, of course, it was too late…
The garbage reached across the state,
From New York to the Golden Gate.
And there, in the garbage she did hate,
Poor Sarah met an awful fate,
That I cannot right now relate
Because the hour is much too late.
But children, remember Sarah Stout
And always take the garbage out!

– Shel Silverstein

Greening the Little Red Schoolhouse

Having spent more than one third of my life – 22 years and counting – as a student, I am very familiar with the inside of school buildings. Because of hearing loss in infancy, I have strained to sort out speech from echos and background noise, and as a result, suffered from the interior environment in every school I have ever attended.

 Photo by Michael Mathers Clackamas High School in Oregon, built in 2002, was the first LEED-certified high school in the country.
Clackamas High School in Oregon, built in 2002, was the first LEED-certified high school in the country. Photo by Michael Mathers

During the day, I now work in the president’s suite of the rather-nice San Francisco campus of Alliant International, a nonprofit private university. During the time I worked for a Bay Area nonprofit that was part of the nationwide Annenberg Challenge for K-12 public school reform, I saw dozens of dirty, down-at-the-heel inner city schools, and the occasional spanking new suburban high school. (These vast edifices, designed to house as many as 5000 students, were often far too large to provide for safe and connected community.) And recently, in this blog, I carped about the acoustic quality of a UC Berkeley Extension classroom where I had been learning about building codes and disabled access laws.

Despite all this experience, what I have not seen in my extensive school tours, though, are green schools.

What Are Green Schools?

Green schools are childcare facilities, K-12 schools, athletic facilities and university buildings that are erected in keeping with sustainable principles. They are healthier and more productive learning environments than your typical little red schoolhouse. (I mean that figuratively, of course, since we have really have not had little schoolhouses, red or otherwise, for several generations now!)

Historic red schoolhouse in Johnstown, Ohio
Historic red schoolhouse in Johnstown, Ohio

In green schools, students have less exposure to mold, mildew and other indoor toxins and that results in fewer colds, asthma attacks and bouts of the flu. While reducing greenhouse gas emissions, green schools achieve lower energy and water bills, saving on the average, about $100,000 per school per year!

Since education is the biggest sector of the construction industry – in 2007, more than $35 billion in tax dollars was spent on building K-12 schools – we’re talking about saving megabucks here. The move towards green schools represents a golden opportunity to direct dollars away from literal “overhead” and into teaching and learning.

The United States Green Building Council (USGBC), through its LEED® building certification program, has set a goal of making sure that, within the next generation, every school we build in this country will be a green school. Toward that end, USGBC tailored the standards it had already developed for new buildings (and used for schools) to specifically reflect the needs of schools.

LEED® is an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and it is certification system for sustainable buildings. It’s used more often for commercial than residential buildings, and it’s used more often for new construction than remodeling. LEED for Schools is now about a year old.

LEED Medallion

Under either the old or new standard, close to 1,000 schools have already gained LEED certification, and roughly one new school wins LEED certification every day. A number of school districts have adopted a policy of building nothing but green schools.

After Hurricane Katrina leveled public schools, New Orleans opted to rebuild them green, and Greensburg, Kansas, which suffered a destructive tornado in May 2007, is also rebuilding all of its schools to meet LEED’s earth-friendly guidelines.

Ohio was the first state to decree that all of its new schools would be built to the LEED silver standard. Maryland, Hawaii, New Jersey, Illinois, Florida, Washington, Connecticut and the District of Columbia already require new schools to be built green while California and Pennsylvania offer strong incentives to follow environmental specifications.

What Does LEED Cover in Schools?

I am very happy to say that LEED for Schools includes standards for acoustic quality, as well as indoor air quality and mold. Ironically, those concerns are not addressed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), one of the driving forces for setting health standards in schools. (For more on ADA, hearing-impaired students and acoustics, see my post Def Design in a Noisy World.)

Generally speaking, the LEED scoring system allocates 100 points in several broad areas of environmental and health concerns, then throws in a few bonus points for specific regional issues and for design innovation. Projects are ranked as silver, gold or platinum based on the total number of points they achieve.

LEED for schools covers these broad areas of environmental and human health:

  • Appropriate site selection and development.
  • Efficient water and energy use.
  • The use of healthy and environmentally sustainable building materials, finishes, and furnishings.
  • Ecologically sensitive waste stream management.
  • Good quality indoor air quality and occupant comfort.

Better Achievement Via Improved Architecture?

Great Seneca Creek Elementary School, Marylands first LEED Gold school
Great Seneca Creek Elementary School, Maryland's first LEED Gold school

Having spent six years working for a nonprofit devoted to improved and more equitable student learning, I can tell you that teacher quality matters a great deal, as does having literate parents who provide a sane and supportive home life. So does the quality of the learning environment at school and at home – as one school advocate so memorably put it, “You can’t study when your hair is on fire.”

I have read studies quantifying the effect of all of these things, but until very recently, I had not seen any studies that connected student health and learning to the quality of the building in which the students work. But that research has been done, and the evidence connecting green schools and improved learning is conclusive:

  • A study entitled Greening America’s Schools by Capital E found that in addition to consuming 30% less water and 30-50% less energy, green schools achieved an average of 38.5% reduction in asthma because of their improved indoor air quality.
  • A study of daylight in North Carolina schools found that students in full-spectrum light were healthier and attended school 3.2 to 3.8 days more per year. Surprisingly, they had 9 times less dental decay, and grew in height an average of 2.1 centimeters more (over the two-year period) than students attending schools with average light. They also remained in a more positive in mood. To top all this off, researcher Heschong Mahone found that students in the classrooms with the most daylight had consistently higher test scores by 7-18 percent.

Healthier Teachers and Communities

Still another study found that green schools cut teacher sick time and absenteeism. (This only stands to reason: As any teacher or parent can tell you, school children are little vectors who bring their classmates’ germs home to share with rest of the family. Adults can then in turn pass the pestilence on at their workplaces!)

I also found it interesting that LEED awards credit when school buildings are made “a more integrated part of the community by enabling the building and its play fields to be used for nonschool events and functions.”

This not only makes environmental sense, it also makes a contribution to the community’s social health. The “beacon schools” movement, which began about 20 years ago, stressed connections between schools and community by bringing community groups into the school to provide before- and after-school programs and community services ranging from health clinics to art classes. Studies of beacon schools showed that among other benefits, crime usually went down in the school’s neighborhood, particularly in the hours just after school let out.

LEED isn’t trying to reduce crime, but it does encourage schools to provide a separate entrance and share their facilities with services such as health clinics, police offices, libraries or media centers and commercial businesses.

The Schoolhouse as a Teaching Tool

Finally, the green features of the school can also serve as a tool to teach environmental stewardship. LEED for Schools gives extra credit to schools that take on this role.

Interior of Walker Elementary.
The first sustainable-design school in the state of Texas, Roy Lee Walker Elementary was honored by the American Institute of Architects on their Earth Day Top 10 List for Environmentally Responsible Design Projects in the nation. Credit SHW Group LLP

A good example of how to use the school as a teaching tool is provided by the Roy Lee Walker Elementary School in McKinney, Texas. As reported by the George Lucas Foundation’s publication Edutopia, here’s how the building’s features are intertwined with the curriculum:

…sustainable design supports the school’s year-round focus on environmental education. Every year, the school hosts a sustainability fair, with each grade level responsible for creating projects around the school’s many eco-friendly design features, such as solar or wind power, water collection and reuse, or recycling. Students create and present their information through videos, artwork, and experiments. “By the time they’re out of fifth grade, our students have explored all the aspects of the building,” says [Principal Deb] Beasley.

Many building features are also incorporated into classroom lessons. The pond, for example, might be used by students in a science class to test the pH level of water samples, or as a colorful subject for young painters in an art class who are learning to mimic the lush brushstrokes of French impressionist Claude Monet. With the school’s two sundials, students use the location of the sun to tell time, as well as to identify the solstices. In the main hallway, a huge gauge monitors how much rainwater has collected in the school’s cisterns, and math teachers use the information during lessons in graphing.

More on Green Schools


To Sir, With Love

(excerpt, video on YouTube)

The time has come for closing books and at long last looks must end
And as I leave I know that I am leaving my best friend
A friend who taught me right from wrong and weak from strong
That’s a lot to learn, but what can I give you in return?

If you wanted the moon I would try to make a start
But I would rather you let me give my heart ‘To Sir, With Love’

– R Granier, Marc London and Don Black

Object Lessons: Designing a Strategy to Deal with Loss and Aging

This week, I got two pieces of devastating news – one personal and one financial – within a single day. This crisis, and my reaction to it, has caused me to reflect deeply on why have I chosen an interior design specialty focused on aging in place.

In starting “Living in Comfort and Joy,” I had initially planned to blog about things like bamboo floors and beautiful furniture. Writing about the emotional challenges of aging feels a bit risky, especially since both the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle have recently outed my age by interviewing me in stories about retirement and the current financial crisis. Nonetheless, the emotional challenge of aging is my topic for this week, and I am firmly convinced that without risk, there’s little reward. I’d love to hear how you, dear reader, feel about this different-kind-of post so I will know whether to repeat this kind of philosophical writing in the future.

Growing Emotional Wisdom

If I had gotten this much bad news when I was in my twenties, I would have stormed and cried. But in middle age, I can no longer afford that kind of emotional sturm und drang. It’s likely to produce an asthma attack, and that can send me to the emergency room. Net result: a painful reminder of my physical limitations, but no forward progress toward solving the original problem.

Theres nothing about aging that requires a rocking chair, but if you want one, make it a beauty. This Cygnus rocker was made by Robert Erickson and is featured on the Furnitude blog. Furnitude is written by master craftsman and furniture maker Mitch Roberson, who has the most beautiful collection of rockers I have ever seen. Click on the rocker to visit Furnitude.
There's nothing about aging that requires a rocking chair, but if you want one, make it a beauty. This "Cygnus" rocker was made by Robert Erickson and is featured on the "Furnitude" blog. Furnitude is written by master craftsman and furniture maker Mitch Roberson, who has the most beautiful collection of rockers I have ever seen. Click on the rocker to visit Furnitude.

Although the aphorism “with the decline of the flesh comes the beginning of wisdom” has at times struck me as mere sophistry, it is also true that I am now capable of managing myself in ways I could not have imagined in my teens and twenties. I believe that the ability to step outside oneself, observe, plan, and consciously alter one’s own behavior is a key component of what has been termed “emotional wisdom.”

While decline of the flesh is mandatory, wisdom is optional. I know a handful of people in their twenties who have a measure of emotional wisdom, and I also know septuagenarians who have virtually none.

I suspect that those of us who gain emotional wisdom usually begin to do so in our thirties; I have a couple of close friends of that age who have become aware that while they can’t choose what happens to them, they can choose how they will react. And when it comes to aging, that makes a whale of a difference. There are now plenty of medical studies about multiple diseases, as well as about depression, which conclusively demonstrate that the ability to change one’s own attitude and behavior improves physical outcomes.

Insight and Interior Design

So what does this have to do with interior design? As it turns out, a great deal. I have written elsewhere about the process of learning to understand and control my asthma, and how I was able to dramatically improve my health by making changes in my living space. I have also written about how changes in the interior of one’s home or office can help one cope with hearing loss, or with loss of mobility.

I have an interesting anecdote to relate here. My friend Elisa, who is not yet 40, has been making a concerted effort to decorate and claim her apartment over the past couple of years. A PhD engineer, Elisa is analytical and applies the scientific method to her life without even being conscious of it: she observes, collects data, tests, and looks for patterns. She is also very studiously and intentionally acquiring emotional wisdom, learning to manage work relationships and her own reactions to situations.

Elisa recently told me that her newly decorated bedroom was marred by the fact that the floor was “always cluttered with stuff.” I was afraid that she would go on to say that she was too lazy to put her things away, so I interrupted and challenged her to apply her investigatory skills to figuring out why she didn’t put things away. I asked her to “observe the behavior of the animal called Elisa” and see if she could discover patterns to this creature’s behavior. Maybe the closet was too far away. Maybe the things on the floor wouldn’t fit in the closet. Or maybe the closet wasn’t in the regular path of travel the animal called Elisa would follow.

I’m happy to report that Elisa was able to step outside herself, observe what was happening and then plan a course of action. Drawing on what she learned, I took her through an interior design evaluation and planning process I use with clients, then lent her a bit of design help. The result: three re-organized closets, one set of peg-hooks in the bedroom, one set of coat hooks in the hallway, and an uncluttered bedroom floor that nicely shows off Elisa’s new French blue carpeting.

Creating a Design for Aging

Another beautiful rocker from the Furnitude blog; this one was created by Leslie Webb. Click the rocker to visit the Furnitude blog.
Another beautiful rocker from Furnitude; this one was created by Leslie Webb. Click the rocker to visit the Furnitude blog.

When it comes to aging, there’s far more to consider than just habits or convenience: How do we sustain our spirits in the face of the inevitable losses that come with aging – losses of hearing, vision, mobility, income, status, friends, and loved ones? Variations of these questions echo in my thoughts as I’m thinking about several potential clients:

  • How can I help Sandra to physically and emotionally plan for the fact that she’s going to be eventually be dependent on a wheel chair?
  • How can I help Stella to nest in her own apartment, creating a life for herself when her husband of 40 years has left her and moved in with another woman, without ever getting a divorce?

There is very little I can do for my friend Katie, who has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It’s an aggressive killer, and few people survive even five years with aggressive treatment. Katie, who is a single mom with a son who had just graduated from college, may need to move back in with her own parents. She doesn’t know yet whether there’s enough upside to warrant going through cancer treatment. I haven’t had the courage to call her yet. I’m trying to come to terms with my own grief about losing Katie before seeing her. I want to offer support, not become someone she needs to comfort. While I know that none of us gets out of this life alive – it’s a question of when, rather than if we’re leaving – it’s especially hard to cope with the idea of someone dying in their mid-forties, let alone a bright, energetic former gymnast.

If there’s a lesson in this tragedy, I think it’s this: Be here now. Live fully now, because we don’t know how many days we have left to us. Ironically, the only way to be fully present in the here and now is to fully let go of what we have lost; you simply can’t be fully present if you’re living in the past. Children have no trouble with this. Unencumbered by habits and expectations, they can always change course and learn something new. Adults who aspire to a measure of emotional wisdom have to consciously practice to attain a state of “beginner’s mind”.

A spiral symbolizes the circular nature of seasons and generations, but moves through space to also signify growth and change. I use this spiral as a symbol for my Comfort and Joy Interior Design business for that reason, and because it is also covered with exclamation points. Life should be full of discovery.

Like adolescence, aging is marked by continual change. To fully live while passing through those changes, we need to be able to learn from our own mistakes and failures (including the failure of bodily functions). We also need to be able to learn from the object lessons of those around us. I have been consciously trying to do that for several years – to create a design for aging – that will enable me to sustain my quality of life despite living with loss. I want to avoid some of the object lessons I have seen along the way:

  • One older woman I know has become completely isolated following her husband’s death. He was her whole world, and when he died, she was left without sustaining relationships.
  • Another older woman has maintained a suburban house which is now falling into disrepair because it’s much too large for her to maintain, and it has also made her wholly dependent on her car – a huge problem when she blacked out at the wheel and lost her driver’s license.
  • A gentleman I know thinks he’s losing his ability to find things in his house. That’s partly true, but a huge contributing factor is that he’s clinging to possessions which have become a tide of flotsam and jetsam shifting through his house. He needs to both improve storage and learn to let go of things that are now physically blocking his path.

As I have written elsewhere, I have been prompted to design my own plan for aging both because of the awareness of the difference in my husband’s age and my own (he’s a generation older than I am, and so he’s almost certain to go first), and by watching older relatives who have dealt well and not-so-well with the challenges of aging. My plan includes the launching of Comfort and Joy Interior Design, and also a move that should allow me to age in place. Last year, I moved to Valley Street to anticipate and accommodate social issues related to age. Among the advantages I gained in this “sustainability move” are the following:

A painting on glass by Nicolette Toussaint. One of the roses in my garden.
A painting on glass by Nicolette Toussaint. One of the roses in my garden.
  • I am not car-dependent; I can walk to the grocery store, the bank and the hardware store.
  • Socially, I have a good friend living just steps away, which means that I won’t be isolated when my mate dies.
  • I have room to grow my interior design business – an endeavor that will allow me to work as long as I want, making contribution to those around me.
  • I have a garden where I can putter to my heart’s content, tend my roses, and reaffirm my connection to the earth.
  • Because it’s in a sunny area of often-foggy San Francisco, I mostly escape the blues that come with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
  • I have strong supportive relationships with several good friends who I see several times a week in the normal course of events. (I don’t have to make an appointment!)
  • It’s a beautiful house, and an attractive interior. Beauty feeds joy, and joy gives root to energy.

In closing, I’d like to recommend a couple other blogs and websites that you may find helpful if you, like me, are conscious of the need to design a plan for aging. (I seriously doubt that you would have read this far if that wasn’t the case!) So here are some recommendations:


How Can I Keep from Singing

(excerpt: Full lyrics)

My life goes on in endless song
above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear its music ringing,
it sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

Traditional Shaker hymn

Oh Dad, Poor Dad, the Designer’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad

“Poor Mr. Gordon! Last semester, some of my students stuck him down in the basement, and when I asked them why, they said, ‘Well, he’s going to be dead soon anyway!”

“Poor old Mr. Gordon” is a man in his 70’s who is losing his mobility due to Muscular Dystrophy (MS). He’s a fictional character — the “client” in a space planning problem for an evening class I’m taking. While Mr. Gordon is not real, his problems are, and they are shared by millions of people.

Heartless or Heedless?

I’m afraid that I see lots of evidence that too many practicing designers either lack knowledge or compassion when it comes to the issues of aging and disability. Just last week, I talked with a woman I will call “Sandra” who was very unhappy about having shelled out a pretty penny for not one, but three useless floor plans for her bathroom! The reason for Sandra’s bathroom redesign is that she really does have MS, and she would like to still be able to take baths as her mobility wanes.

Walk-in bathtub
Cameo walk-in bathtub from Seacrest Bathing

Sandra already has a wheelchair accessible shower, but like me, she enjoys soaking in the bath. Although Sandra was quite explicit about her needs, none of the alternatives that came back from this interior designer (not a student, but an established, practicing designer) included the necessary grab bars or a space that would allow her to slide from her wheelchair to the side of the tub. That was the whole point of the redesign!

I find this heartbreaking, but unfortunately, not it’s surprising. Ed Walters, the instructor for my evening class, insists that all of his students read and use the accessibility specifications from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA.) From Ed’s preamble to our reading and space planning assignments, I gather that he’s gotten a lot of push-back from students. (That’s Ed I quoted at the beginning of this blog.)

Not only is Ed beginning his lectures by saying, “I know this is boring, I know that you don’t want to learn this, and I know you think this isn’t relevant to your career plans,” but he’s also taken to using reverse psychology on his students. On the website where files for the class are stored, there’s a folder labeled, “Top Secret. Do Not Open.”  When I opened it, I found an article on the physical and emotional needs of older people who are aging in their own homes for as long as possible, and how to help them delay (or avoid) a move into assisted living!

A sink with a space underneath that allows a wheelchair user to pull all the way up to the counter.
A sink with a space underneath that allows a wheelchair user to pull all the way up to the counter.

I suspect that my fellow students’ age (or lack of it) might be part of the problem that Ed has encountered with the class. Most of the students are twenty or thirty-somethings, so (unlike Ed and me) they are fortunate enough to have little or no experience of disability. Yet!

Youth and Physical Ability:
Just Temporary Conditions!

Some years ago, an indomitable older woman named Lucille Lockhardt recruited my husband Mason to serve on a disability access committee for our church. Lucille was the disability activist who hounded the City of San Francisco into beginning to make curb cuts even before the passage of the ADA, and she was intent on installing ramps, lowering pay phones, and making toilet stalls accessible in the church. Mason politely declined her invitation on the grounds that he was “not disabled.”

Lucille, who was about four and half feet tall and walked, crab-wise, with two crutches, laughed at this. “What you are,” she retorted, “is temporarily abled.” Her words proved prophetic. Within about a year, Mason had back trouble that left him unable to navigate stairs or step off a curb! It was a consciousness-raising experience.

Brain Over Brawn

The truth of the matter is that while none of us get out of this world alive, the fact that we’re all living longer means that most of us will, at some point, be living with disabilities.

I now have three disabilities that would, in the words of the ADA, qualify as “limiting major life activities.” Unlike a wheelchair that announces a person’s disability the moment they enter the room, my disabilities are largely invisible, as are the “accommodations” that enable me to deal with them.

I have an alarm clock like this one. The round object is a "bed shaker" that vibrates when the alarm goes off. I keep it under my pillow. This solves the problem of rolling over onto my "good ear" and not hearing an audial alarm. Once I discovered this, I was no longer dependent on my partner to awaken me every morning.
I have an alarm clock like this one. The round object is a "bed shaker" that vibrates when the alarm goes off. I keep it under my pillow. This solves the problem of rolling over onto my "good ear" and not hearing an audial alarm. Once I discovered this, I was no longer dependent on my partner to awaken me every morning.

However, I can’t read at all without glasses and sufficient light. I have a serious hearing impairment and use a hearing aid as well as phone amplifiers and a special alarm clock. (Those interested in design for the hearing impaired should read my post on “Def” Design in a Noisy World.) I suffer asthma and allergies, and as a result, I have leather furniture and wood floors. My disabilities have not made me dependent, made my home institutional-looking, nor do they prevent me from living an active life. (In fact, I’m sometimes a bit chagrined on those occasions when someone gets up to offer me a seat on the bus.)

However, not much more than five years ago, I was unable to walk up my back stairs without stopping to rest several times. The reason that I can now travel independently, gallop up the stairs two at a time, belly dance, and ice skate twice a week is that I have gained and applied some wisdom about managing my disabilities.

I seriously doubt that my fellow students realize that the reason I sit in the front row of our class has to do with my hearing; maybe they think I’m a teacher’s pet or just want to gaze on Ed Walter’s handsome face! The truth is that the classroom has a serious echo problem. That’s the result of an interior design failure, a designer who did follow the ADA access codes, but still didn’t address the audiological needs of the 10 percent of the public who have hearing loss. I need to sit directly in front of Ed because I need to hear his words before the echo, and to read his lips to augment my hearing aid.

A Lack of Awareness in Many Venues

I often encounter public buildings that do meet the letter of the law, but still fall short in spirit and practice, as does my classroom. In private buildings, the problems are often worse for multiple reasons: the access laws are looser, many people live in buildings that pre-date accessibility legislation, many older and disabled people don’t realize that there are solutions for their problems, and a majority of people never consult an interior designer or architect in any case.

note leather furniture and wood floors.
An interior designed to mitigate dust allergies: note leather furniture and wood floors.

Sadly, even people who do seek professional design help may not get what they need because many practicing interior designers have had neither formal training nor personal exposure to designing for disabilities and aging in place. (This, I suspect, explains how Sandra’s interior designer managed to come up with multiple designs that showed no response to Sandra’s obvious and expressed need for accessible bathroom design.)

Even though my fellow space planning students may not yet have developed much compassion for Mr. Gordon, their certificate program does at least require them to study ADA access codes. In this, they — and their future clients — are fortunate whether they know that or not at the moment.

Still, I often find myself cringing a bit when reading about “award-winning design” or listening to presentations about design “solutions.” Too much of what’s being lauded often has to do with young designers following seasonal trends or expressing their personality at the client’s expense. (The overuse of the word “I” and the under-use of the words “client needs” provides a tip-off.) If a designer is more interested in their industry’s fashion forecast than their client’s health forecast, then they may just think that the easiest way to solve the “design problem” is to stick poor old Mr. Gibson, or dad or grandma, into the basement!

Advice on Seeking Interior Design Help

What if you happen to be Mr. Gibson, figuratively speaking? My advice would be to ask your prospective interior designer some leading questions before plunking down any money. Here are three good questions:

  • Have you had any personal experience with disability? What kind of disability?
  • Do you have training and/or experience in designing for access, or “universal design”?
  • Do you have Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) training, or work with a contractor who has that training?


When I get older, losing my hair,
Many years from now,
Will you still be sending me a valentine
Birthday greetings bottle of wine?
If I’d been out till quarter to three
Would you lock the door?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four?

You’ll be older too,
And if you say the word,
I could stay with you.

I could be handy mending a fuse
When your lights have gone.
You can knit a sweater by the fireside
Sunday mornings go for a ride.
Doing the garden, digging the weeds,
Who could ask for more?

Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four?

–Paul McCartney