This Wheelchair-Accessible Hudson Valley House Has Universal Appeal

Photography by Nils Schlebusch

A newcomer to the Valley fulfills her vision of building a universally designed home, with views of the Ashokan River, from the ground up.

The Team

Architect: Barry Price Architecture
Builder: David Glick
Millwork: Rowan Woodwork
Structural Engineer: Stinemire Engineering
HVAC Engineer: Baukraft Engineering
Lighting: LEDspin

When Deborah Mellen started looking for a house in the Hudson Valley, she wasn’t looking to build.

“I was looking for a barn or a house that I could remodel,” she says. “Something simple and easy. Then I found this property, which blew me away, and it all changed.”

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With breathtaking views of the Ashokan Reservoir and surrounding mountains, she decided building on this land was the right move to make. Mellen, who uses a wheelchair for accessibility, worked with architect Barry Price, “an expert at building passive houses,” to develop a vision for the home. With a focus on universal design and sustainability, Two Barns was born.

As the founder and executive director of nonprofit The Impossible Dream, a sailing catamaran that was built from the ground up to be wheelchair accessible, Mellen spends a lot of her time going up and down the coast talking to people about how the boat is universally designed, which ultimately influenced the design of Two Barns as well.

“The idea was to think about design, from the foundation up, in a way that will make the house better and work for everybody that needs to use it,” she says.

Keeping this idea in mind, the team, including Suzanne Walton of Rowan Woodwork, who was brought on to assist and became fast friends with Mellen over their shared love for sailing, thought about designing for everybody who would come into the house so that it was functional in every aspect.

“What I found, first with the boat and with some other projects that I have worked on, is that this design makes things more beautiful not less,” Mellen says.

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In just over two years, the team worked to create two industrial barn structures connected by a pathway that are magnificent in their own respect, while also taking a backseat to the astonishing view they overlook.

Room to Move

“I had always envisioned something on one floor and wide open, which is the most comfortable for me and the way I’ve been living for most of my life,” Mellen says. As an admirer of glass houses, she envisioned incorporating that style into an open floor plan. The result was the master bedroom, kitchen, and living room flowing seamlessly together on the first floor of the main house. “You could live in the ground floor like a loft,” she adds.

Taking It All In

There’s no doubt that the view from this property is the wow factor. So naturally, the layout of the house was designed around taking in the landscape 24/7. One of Price’s challenges was to give the south-facing side of the home a clear view of the Ashokan Reservoir from each vantage point both upstairs and downstairs.

“If it were up to Deborah, the entire south wall would have been glass,” he says. “What we found when we were doing the energy modeling for the house, [was that] it was too much; the house would overheat. I had to start reducing the amount of glass on the side of the house without feeling like I was robbing her of her view.” In order to accomplish this, Price incorporated solid bands of wall above the continuous doors, out of the horizon of the viewer.

An Ode to the Sea

As you step inside the master bathroom, immediately you’ll notice the smooth wood which surrounds the bathtub and row of drawers. “It’s all teak,” says Walton, who adds that teak is especially popular on boats as it is designed to withstand getting wet and banged into. Choosing teak as a tribute to Mellen’s love for sailing was perfect, especially since it was also practical. “The patina that it would develop from the wheelchair would contribute to the character,” Price says. 

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Going Up

The lift proved to be the biggest challenge of the house, mostly because they had to invent the whole thing. “I hated the idea of going into elevators like a box,” Mellen says. “I said, ‘If I’m going to do an upper floor, the elevator has to be the most beautiful part of the house.’” Price worked with a consultant who specializes in hydraulics to design the lift. “The lift is a locus of the house,” he says.

“There’s one skylight on the house and it occurs right above the lift. It pins the house to the site,” says Price, who used the lift as the spot that radiates character and interest. Mellen decided to pursue a raw aesthetic for the home, leaving the steal unfinished on parts like the columns and beams, which allowed the lift to have that exposed, raw aesthetic and match the structure of the house, Price says. Mellen explains, “It’s all open when you go up, you can see everything.”

The Prototype

“The pool house had a few roles,” says Price. “Logistically it was built so we could get her in there … because her input, particularly given the universal design, was crucial.” The pool house was built using the same principals of universal design and performance criteria for sustainability as the main house. “In some ways it was also a prototype to work out the bugs,” Price adds. Inside the pool house, Walton worked with Price and Mellen to design the tiniest kitchen she’s ever worked on, just 59 inches wide. In addition to the kitchen, another highlight of the pool house are its doors, which fold back on each other leaving the wall completely open to enjoy the pool area and view.

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