The Norfolk home where wheelchairs come first

It looks stunning, but this barn's real beauty lies in its function. Penny Jackson was granted access all areas to very special home
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The Independent Online

There were tears the first time Alan Rogers went into his new house. For 11 months he had watched it taking shape from the outside but until the final day of the project, it hadn't been possible for him to reach the first floor. While most people in his position can don a hard hat and climb a ladder to inspect the work in progress, Rogers could not - he is confined to a wheelchair. But on that final day, the sight he encountered was better than anything he dared imagine.

In front of him was a huge, open space with a tall, curved ceiling visible from one end of the building to the other. Along the south side, through large, sliding windows, were the uninterrupted views of the Norfolk Broads that he had been promised. "I was absolutely bowled over, thrilled to bits," recalls Rogers, four months later. "It was so beautiful I picked up the phone at once to call the builders."

Although the lift was the last thing to be installed, Alan had been uppermost in everyone's mind from the start of the project. He suffers from chronic arthritis and the weekend cottage that he and his wife, Jenny, had owned for many years in the village of Reedham was no longer enjoyable. They considered making alterations but at the very best Alan would have had restricted use of it. He wanted a home he could enjoy as well as anyone could.

So, after poring over the plans drawn up by their architects, Knox Bhavan, from south-east London, they decided to look for a site and start from scratch. Alan found a redundant barn on the edge of the village but it took him two years to persuade the farmer to sell.

In its place now, in a sensitive local spot, is a two-storey house - the old barn was demolished and replaced with a new building sympathetic to its surroundings. The natural timber boarding, in alternating wide and narrow strips, on the walls and roof replicate the windmills and boathouses on the Broads. Its smooth, clean lines visible across the marshes from the railway and river, have been achieved by the device of a hidden gutter, so the eaves appear to melt into the roof. The project has been so successful that it has been shortlisted for a Royal Institute of British Architects regional award - the winner is announced on Friday.

The major joy for the Rogers is that they have a home which has been created in the tiniest detail for Alan, while using his disability as a springboard for imaginative design. Curved walls and corners not only allow him to manoeuvre his wheelchair easily, but are a delight for everyone else. Handrails and special furniture are detailed into their backgrounds rather than sprouting like carbuncles from doors and walls.

On the first floor, Alan has everything within easy reach - kitchen, living room, study and bedroom. The bathroom is a pod without a sharp edge in sight. Even the challenge of fixing a handrail to glass tiles was eventually overcome. The bedroom beyond has views to three sides. "It faces east and you can lie in bed in the morning with the sun pouring in," says Alan. "The horizontal louvres on the outside of the window give a lovely diffused light. My office is open to the corridor, so I can either gaze out over the marshes or move forward one foot and peer the whole length of the corridor." He now finds he is spending more time away from London but still working for the business consultancy he runs with Jenny.

Entertaining plays a large part in their lives, and on the ground floor is the family part of the house, with four bedrooms, a playroom and two bathrooms. Alan finds it easy to go downstairs to read to his grandchildren or play pool with guests.

Simon Knox, of Knox Bhavan, explains how an area designed as small monastic cells was turned into a sunny, useful space. "We tried to make the corridor as interesting as possible to walk along and easy for Alan to get around, as well as allowing room for other people to move easily around him," he says. "All the bedrooms open on to the corridor and the doors are held open into recesses within the thickness of the wall.

On the other side, French doors let in sunlight which bounces off pastel-coloured wardrobes outside each bedroom." Above all, nowhere in the house is off-limits to Alan, not even the garden, where the first seeds are being sown.

The architecture firm's work has earned it awards in the past, but this is the first major project for a disabled client. "We enjoyed the discipline of trying to understand how someone in a wheelchair moves around but at the same time it is designed to be a family house, an heirloom to be passed down through the generations," says Knox.

For many disabled people and their families, the options are more limited - it cost £500,000 to build Holly Barn. Finding an existing home suitable for their needs is often hard. Four years ago, Conrad Hodgkinson, whose partner, Christine, is in a wheelchair, set up a website called The Accessible Property Register, which advertises only those homes that meet certain criteria. "It was when I asked the senior partner in a Westcountry estate agency whether access was an important issue and he replied, 'We don't come up against disabled people very often' that I realised how bad the situation was. Even now, purchasers will be sent off to view somewhere by an agent only to find they can't even get in."

In order to address this, he has set up links with a number of estate agents who are prepared to identify suitable properties at valuation, and promote accessible and adapted homes. Eadon Lockwood & Riddle, an agent in Sheffield, is the first to include accessibility as a button on its website.

"Agents often tell vendors that they should remove something like a platform lift because buyers don't like it," says Hodgkinson.

"It may have cost £15,000 to install and there would have been an emotional investment as well, which agents should recognise. At least give disabled buyers a chance to find a suitable house."

In Norfolk, the Rogers' house shows how it can be achieved through good design. "It doesn't have to be all plastic-edge trims and hideous mobility aids," says Knox. "Just because someone is in a wheelchair doesn't mean they want a medi-care feel to their home."

www.accessible-property.org.uk

Eadon Lockwood & Riddle: www.elr.co.uk

Knox Bhavan architects: www.knoxbhavan.com

Builders: www.willowbuilders.co.uk

How to make your home wheelchair-friendly

* Existing homes can be adapted for disabled use. These are some of the best additions, and an indication of costs involved:

* Grab rails must be particularly robust and can be bought from bathroom and specialist shops. Prices start from around £13. Extra support within the wall is sometimes needed, so allow fixing costs from £30 for a masonry wall; more for a partition wall. Rails are particularly important in bathrooms, stairs and by beds.

* Stairlifts start from around £2,500 for a straight staircase and from £4,300 for a curved one.

* Wheelchair lifts (not using staircases) are also an option, from £8,500.

* A bath with an electrically operated rising, lowering and rotating seat costs around £5,750.

* Even some bungalows need extra features. For example, a platform lift rising three feet from a driveway to the front door can cost £5,000.

* Doors may need to be widened, and handles lowered. Make sure there is the wall space either side of the frame, and allow for at least £500 per door, including new door and frame, for a partition wall; more if it is masonry.

* The Disabled Living Foundation ( www.dlf.org.uk) gives a wealth of advice on available equipment.

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