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The Elegant Result of a Lifelong Commitment to Universal Design

Updated: Nov 22, 2020

By Dallas Adams, Starkloff Disability Institute

From the outside, the Starkloff residence appears to be just another stately dwelling in the Central West End. But its ramps, elevator, wide doorways and halls likely make it the most accessible home in St. Louis.

Colleen Starkloff and her late husband Max purchased the turn-of-the-century home in 1975 and began remodeling it in stages, gradually converting it into a comfortable living space. They prioritized accessibility since Max, quadriplegic due to a spinal cord injury, would be navigating it by wheelchair.

“Since Max owned the house, too, so we felt it was important for him to be able to access every square inch of it,” Colleen recalls.

Despite living there happily for decades, Colleen recently decided to undertake one more home improvement project. She set her sights on a cutting-edge new kitchen, built according to the Principles of Universal Design (UD).

UD calls for the built environment and all of the products in it to be equally accessible, understandable and usable for everyone, regardless of age, size, ability or disability. The approach blends complementary aspects of beauty and functionality, creating a space that appeals to all people.

Colleen, a lifelong disability rights advocate who together with her husband first founded Paraquad and later the Starkloff Disability Institute, has been an ardent proponent of UD since the mid-80s. As such, she has a pretty good sense of what makes the ideal UD kitchen.

“I knew what I wanted. It was the organizing and the attention to detail that I needed help with,” Colleen admits. “I’m more of a concept person, so I needed the expertise of a good designer.” And what she wanted was a kitchen that would work for standing as well as seated cooks.

After a lengthy bid process where she encountered a fair amount of skepticism, Colleen eventually assembled the team that would help make her UD kitchen dream a reality. The project would be designed by St. Louisan Greg Zipfel, an experienced architect specializing in healthcare design. And overseen and built by Pete and Jennifer Uetrecht of Compass Design – Build.

Colleen chose Greg for his experience with UD and his excellent design skills. Pete and Jennifer brought some UD experience to the table, having built and remodeled a number of homes for the Gary Sinise Foundation, a nationally recognized nonprofit organization supporting military veterans, first responders and their families.

The Uetrecht’s experience working with the Foundation inspired something of a philosophical shift for Compass Design | Build. Pete and Jennifer both earned their CAPS (Certified Aging in Place Specialist) certifications, an approach that emphasizes accessibility in much the same way as UD. Soon they were meeting with occupational therapists from Washington University and several other places, learning the principles of UD and contemplating different methods for incorporating them. “It’s really become a passion for us,” Pete explains. “Whether we’re building a new home from the ground up or remodeling an existing structure, we encourage and implement universal design in every project, even when homeowners don’t realize it.”

Colleen appreciates the enthusiasm of her design team.

“It’s nice to find a group that I don’t have to argue with,” Colleen acknowledges. “Greg, Pete and Jenn are an absolute joy to work with. They are very eager for the opportunity to create a true universal design kitchen.”

So last November, Colleen set out on her quest to prove that Ron Mace’s vision of UD is indeed attainable by overhauling the kitchen in her very own home. The updated appliances, cabinets and countertops called for an increase in square footage, so the kitchen confines were extended into the adjoining family room. This is where Greg suggested adding a custom island, which quickly became Colleen’s favorite feature.

“It really makes a statement the way Greg designed it,” Colleen marvels. “I never knew what I was missing.”

Stay tuned for part 2!

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