Minimal environmental impact as a moral imperative

(Photos by Dion Ogust)
The exterior of the house.

In the 33 years since she lost the use of her legs, Deborah Mellen has come to understand the importance of design for people with disabilities. Since being in a wheelchair, she feels purposely marginalized – kept away from most of Woodstock’s shops and restaurants and her friends’ homes which have stairs.

Mellen, who worked in the family’s jewelry and gemstone business in New York City, moved to the Woodstock area in 2017. Her dream was to remodel a barn. She liked the big windows.

What she found was a ramshackle, asbestos-filled house in the hills above Woodstock with a great view of the Ashokan Reservoir. She tore it down and built her dream house.

Mellen wasn’t looking for a home like some of the accessible facilities she’s seen, with obvious bars and ramps and a built-in one-person elevator. “They throw ugly you all the time,” she said. Mellen is an art collector. Ugly wouldn’t do. She found a talented local architect, Barry Price, and they got to work.

Anticipate changes

Deborah Mellen

They agreed to use universal design create an enabling environment for “people with different abilities”. In other words, all of us. Price says universal design anticipates life cycle changes. His aging clients are asking for single-storey houses because they are losing some of their mobility. “Every home must adapt to change.” As kids move out and their parents get older, things like hard-to-reach stairs and tubs can become obstacles.

Mellen needed a home where her friends in wheelchairs would be as comfortable as those without disabilities. All sills are flat. To get to the second floor, Price suggested a large open elevator that could easily accommodate two people talking. She has a chair to lower herself into her bathtub.

Other details to accommodate her disability are more subtle: a space under the sink for her to slip into a shower with a limestone seat. She has a raised yoga platform that she can slide down from her chair. Mellen’s kitchen is easy to navigate since all the drawers and cupboards are within easy reach for her…or anyone else. The amenities are subtle.

View of Ashokan Reservoir from Mellen’s room.
The elevator

Another unseen feature of the Mellen house is that it uses about 90% less energy than traditional houses. Its “passive house” is a super-insulated, airtight structure that requires little heating and cooling. It recovers heat and humidity and saves homeowners most of their energy costs. Aware that buildings and their construction represent more than a third of the world’s energy consumption, Price is committed to minimizing environmental impact. It’s a moral imperative, he says, “…more and more urgent the more I do what I do.”

An outdoor carport makes the transition to the front door easier and more attractive than going through a garage. There’s a tree-lined path where Mellen can exercise his dashing Portuguese water dog, Benno, and a gently sloping oil and chip path down to Mellen’s pool.

It seems there’s nothing Mellen can’t do in and around his house. Now 68, she has come a long way from the serious injuries she suffered in 1989 in Italy when a lorry driver fell asleep and rammed into the car her husband was driving. The driver was not seriously injured, but Mellen was. Many of her bones were broken and she was in a coma for three weeks. Years of surgery and rehabilitation followed, but her spine was broken and she never regained the use of her legs. (Two years later, her husband died of unrelated causes.)

Mellen was sent to the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. She had always loved the ocean but was convinced that she would no longer be able to enjoy it. There, she discovered Shake-a-Leg Miami, a sports center for the disabled that takes people in wheelchairs out on the water. “Water heals, water liberates,” says Mellen.

The beauty of giving

She would find her life’s purpose in sharing her love of the ocean with disabled men, women and children. About ten years ago, Mellen heard about the only sailboat in the world made to universal design standards. Called the impossible dreamit is a 60-foot catamaran that can accommodate twelve people in wheelchairs, with twelve companions and a small crew including the disabled. It has been designed so that people in wheelchairs can board and move around easily. Two elevators take them down to the toilets and dormitories. Mellen bought the ship.

Mellen founded The Impossible Dream, a non-profit organization for the “thousands of people marginalized by their non-accessible environment”. For five months each year, the catamaran sails from Miami to Maine and back, stopping along the way to offer people with disabilities in hospitals, rehab or community groups the opportunity to sail the only sailboat designed for them. Mellen says she learned “the beauty of giving.”

the impossible dream will dock at the Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston from September 9-18.

Mellen and Price believe that anyone lucky enough to live to retirement age would benefit from inclusive universal design and passive house construction. Designing for All opens up possibilities for everyone, those who are currently disabled and those who may one day be.

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