Skip to main content
Main Penn College Website

Collaboration Helps Students Consider Accessibility in Home Design


Pennsylvania College of Technology students pursuing distinctively different career paths collaborated recently, learning from one another how to design homes that will be both beautiful and functional for anyone who might cross the threshold.

Architectural technology students worked with occupational therapy assistant students to modify building plans to suit real-world client-based scenarios for current or future accessibility needs, including guests who visit.

The collaboration capitalizes on both groups’ expertise: an occupational therapy assistant’s role is to help people who have a disability to do what they want and need to do. For those with physical disabilities, it could involve teaching them how to button a shirt with one hand or providing strategies and tools to get around their kitchens. Architects, meanwhile, know what building modifications are possible and how cost-effective they are.

While studying a floor plan and real world-inspired client case, Penn College students in architectural technology and occupational therapy assistant majors discuss options for making a home handicap-accessible. From left are Mackenzie L. Martin, of Thompsontown, and Jessica L. Osborne, of Cogan Station, both pursuing degrees in applied health studies: occupational therapy assistant concentration; Jeanne L. Kerschner, director of occupational therapy assistant; Cayla L. Erisman, an architectural technology student from Johnstown; and Garrett A. Brown, a student in architectural technology from Pipersville.
While studying a floor plan and real world-inspired client case, Penn College students in architectural technology and occupational therapy assistant majors discuss options for making a home handicap-accessible. From left are Mackenzie L. Martin, of Thompsontown, and Jessica L. Osborne, of Cogan Station, both pursuing degrees in applied health studies: occupational therapy assistant concentration; Jeanne L. Kerschner, director of occupational therapy assistant; Cayla L. Erisman, an architectural technology student from Johnstown; and Garrett A. Brown, a student in architectural technology from Pipersville.

Each group was provided a building plan and a client description and asked to modify the home, first with the most cost-effective basic changes, and then with an unlimited budget. Solutions included roll-under sinks, stair lifts, handrails, front-loading washing machines, pedestal sinks and kitchen islands.

For occupational therapy assistant student Rachael Zimmerman, of Pine Grove, the exercise opened her eyes to new ways of modifying physical spaces.

“There isn’t just one way of doing things,” she said. “You get so used to seeing things one way, but (in an exercise like this), you get a new perspective. We look a lot at hand rails, door knobs, faucets and cabinets. Architecture students are going to look more at design.”

Part of what the exercise was designed to reinforce is that it’s much easier and cost-effective to build a home with “universal design” – meaning its features are usable by all – from the beginning than to modify a home later.

Universal design includes building features that are designed for those with disabilities but are convenient for everyone. Curb cuts in sidewalks, for example, are designed for those who use wheelchairs but are convenient for many. Automatic sliding doors, commonplace at large stores, are another example.

“In our day and age of sustainable design emphasis, such universal-designed features in a home address all people as a result of birth, accidents or age,” said Rob A. Wozniak, associate professor of architectural technology. “These features typically include: a step-free entry, accessible horizontal/vertical circulation, including 32-inch minimum doorways, reinforced walls to accommodate future grab bars, accessible electrical and HVAC controls, accessible kitchens, baths and laundry, and an accessible bedroom on the main floor, as found in Ranch or Cape Cod-style residencies. These features are paramount for ‘SustainABLE’ design.”

Linda M. Barnes, associate professor of occupational therapy assistant, said many seek to buy a home – or to modify a home – to accommodate physical challenges:

  • Those who have no immediate needs but want to prepare for challenges that may come up as they age or make their home accessible to visitors.
  • Those diagnosed with a progressive condition that will cause home-modification needs in the future.
  • Those who’ve experienced an emergency and need to modify their homes right away.

Many of those preparing for their future are baby boomers, who Barnes said will make up one-third of the population by 2020. The boomers own 48 percent of all houses and have 28 percent of the wealth, she said.

Wozniak, who coordinated the event for students in a Codes, Specifications and Estimating course, told his class that this expertise could lead to a career specialty.

While architects are well-versed in building code, there are no requirements, per the Americans with Disabilities Act, for making private homes accessible, Wozniak said.

To learn more about architectural technology and sustainable design majors at Penn College, call 570-327-4518.

To learn about Penn College’s Occupational Therapy Assistant Program, call 570-327-4519.

For information about Penn College, a national leader in applied technology education and workforce development, email the Admissions Office or call toll-free 800-367-9222.

Related Stories

Architectural Technology
Inaugural exhibit showcases students’ sustainable design work
Read more
A half-dozen high school students hobnob with the Wildcat outside the ACC Auditorium. Architectural Technology
Women in Construction builds confidence in tomorrow’s workforce
Read more
Ferki tells guests, “Scholarships act as a gateway to inspire growth in a student’s academics and passion for his or her industry.” She is the recipient of the SEKISUI SPI Workforce Development Scholarship and the Penn College Foundation Scholarship. Architectural Technology
Scholarship luncheon provides firsthand look at donors’ impact
Read more