By Francie Healy
“When I get busy, it’s because there’s been bad news,” says Scott Puddicombe. “And I’m booked all the time.”
Scott owns Puddicombe Access Solutions, which exactly describes his work.
When lack of mobility means you can’t get around your own home, Scott creates accessibility. He finds the solutions.
His solutions are not just “answers” but creative, innovative designs that dramatically impact the way people live. They apply to able-bodied people with an eye to the future as well as to people who need help right away.
In a nutshell, it’s so much more than building ramps.
In fact, ramps aren’t even part of it. Ramps are ugly, says Scott. They diminish house values. They need to be maintained. They make your house look like an institution. And they don’t last. He won’t have anything to do with them.
“The purpose of good accessible renovation is not only to make it look nice,” he says. “but to make it work.”
He’s a consultant and designer rather than a builder, but he began this specialized work by doing the actual construction himself (as well as the design) that transform lifestyles. He has been in the “access” business for 18 years, but he was also a licensed carpenter and elevator mechanic for many years beforehand.
He started building and renovating for accessibility after a friend of a friend asked him to renovate a house for a son with special needs. He came up with creative solutions and realized what a difference he had made in that family’s life. Others in similar circumstances heard about it and asked him if he’d take on their homes.
“I came to realize that I liked doing this much better than regular building and renovation,” he said. “It’s so much more rewarding. In this business, you really are making a difference in someone’s life.”
He works with families, lawyers, the courts, insurance companies and occupational therapists to find the best solutions after a trauma or as people face old age.
“Design is the thing that sets me apart,” he says. So I shut down the construction part about 10 years ago.”
It’s not an easy job, and it takes time. Sometimes it can be emotionally stressful.
“My work with clients can be such a personal process,” he says. “I have to understand their lifestyle. What hobbies do they have? What sort of social life? I get to know them. They need to know they can trust me implicitly with anything they have to say. Especially in the areas of bathrooms and bedrooms, they often have to share personal information. Sometimes they can’t bring themselves to say it, and I have to read between the lines.
“It seems so unfair, the things that happen to people. Things that could have happened to anyone… things that could have happened to me. It can be upsetting.”
He says he sometimes has to be “the bad guy” when his clients are too optimistic. Sometimes they’ll say ‘I’m not going to get worse than this’ but they could be wrong and I have to tell them what they want probably won’t work, or won’t work long-term.”
More than that, he can’t assume he fully understands their mobility and their future.
This is where the other professionals come in – the people who know the human body as well as Scott knows construction.
He and his clients meet with an occupational therapist who studies the situation and then writes a report that states needs and future mobility. Once Scott gets the therapist’s report, he creates a design based on it and then sends it back to the therapist for suggestions, alterations or approval.
It’s a long process and can sometimes take about a year.
“You have to know it will work 100 per cent,” he says. “Almost everything is custom, and we have to evaluate every aspect. It takes more than just me. There are a lot of people involved. Everyone has to be in agreement. We have to have all our ducks in a row. Every single step matters.”
He says he has to ask hundreds of questions − for instance: How are you going to open that cabinet? How are you going to reach into the back of the closet?
Then once the project finally starts, Scott says it goes pretty quickly. That’s a good thing. People with respiratory difficulties must go somewhere else during construction because of the dust.
Most renovation for accessibility looks somewhat institutional. Part of the problem, says Scott, is that able-bodied people are doing the design for people who aren’t.
It takes years to understand the ins and outs of accessible renovation. It’s a creative process because it’s custom-made to suit a lifestyle.
And the barrier-free section of the Ontario Building Code usually isn’t enough. Scott explains that it’s meant to meet the needs of many different kinds of people fairly well. He says they’re doing the most they can using rules for everyone, but “they’re watered down”.
On the other hand, his custom design can precisely meet the needs of one person or one family.
Scott describes a couple of things as examples of what can be done for people with mobility issues: A roll-in shower, for instance, with no sill. It’s cut into the floor and the whole room has a minor slope, so the water goes down the drain and doesn’t pool anywhere. Scott says it takes superb engineering to do that.
Instead of a ramp, landscaping can be a solution.
“When the job is done it just looks like your front yard has been landscaped with a meandering path and interlocking stone,” Scott says. “Curb appeal increases dramatically. Most people have no idea the landscaping is an ‘accessible design’. They just know it’s beautiful.”
Scott says your house doesn’t have to look as though there’s a sign saying: “Disabled person lives here”. And that can be more than just a matter of attractiveness, he says. It can be a safety feature.
“You don’t need to advertise the fact that you may not be able to defend yourself,” he explains.
He adds the byproduct of a beautifully-designed accessible home is luxury. Flooring has to be good. It has to be long-lasting and made with higher quality materials. Hallways are wider and so are all the doors. Nothing looks odd or out of place, and in fact it looks open, bright, and spacious.
Scott says there are two categories of need:
- Age-in-place accessibility. People who are getting older or realize they will be getting older eventually, and want to stay in their own home. These can be people who are in their 40s and 50s with no mobility issues but who ask themselves, when renovating, what that bathroom or kitchen should have in 15 or 20 years. Or they ask: what in the design of our house may cause issues with our mobility later on?
- Accessibility after “catastropic loss” (an insurance term). This is dramatic loss in the level of mobility in a short time. It often means such a severe change that every part of the home must be altered. Scott can tell people if their house has the potential for major changes. It doesn’t always. In that case he talks to them about the possibility of selling their home and building a new one or finding one better suited for accessible renovation. In this case he can put them in touch with real estate agents who understand what a universally-accessible home needs, and who the have the eye to spot houses with that potential.
He goes on to describe two areas of accessible construction and design:
- Barrier-free according to building codes. This is the reactive approach, he says. By the time people think about making their home accessible, it’s too late. They do it in a reactive way when their level of mobility declines. Three steps? Okay. Let’s build a ramp. Wheelchair? Let’s make doorways wider, and lower the shelves.
- Universal access. This is proactive. You design so you simply don’t need stairs at all; so all doorways are wider; so all light switches can be reached by everyone; so the house is beautiful and highly functional for any age or ability. Rather than fixing the problem, universal access design makes sure there’s not a problem in the first place. Scott says people are starting to see accessible living as an investment not only in their future but in their property.
If you just do “band aid” or reactive solutions, Scott explains, then all that money is gone when it comes time to sell. Not only that, but you have to spend more taking down that ramp or fixing those odd doorways before you put it on the market.
But he maintains if you do it right, if you spend your money wisely in the first place, you can make your house accessible and also get your money back when you sell. Accessible houses are becoming more in demand not just for people who have an immediate need but for people who are looking to the future.
“There is no cheap solution that will get your money back,” he says. “In my experience, the best return – better than kitchens and bathrooms – are quality accessible renovations.”
As part of his design plan, Scott recommends the right kind of people for the work. He used to tell people to use the best contractors they could find, but he changed his tactic on that awhile back. Because of his work in the industry, he knows who the best people are. Now he offers a comprehensive list of companies, builders, renovators and products that are the best on the market.
“Renovators and builders need not only to be skilled but to be the kind of people clients can trust, just as clients have to be able to trust me.” They have to have the right personality, do the finest work and have the best work ethic. Most of all, they have to have empathy.
Using the best companies is practical as well .When insurance companies are involved, Scott explains, there’s a finite amount of money. He can’t go back and ask for more. He has to get the trades people “who will do the job right and at the price they’ve quoted”.
When people lose mobility, he says, “I can’t get them back to the way they were, but I can make life easier for them. I can get them closer to their lives before their mobility went downhill.”
And that, he adds, “is just a great feeling.”