It’s been a year since two bombs were detonated near the finish line of the 117th running of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and wounding dozens more. Like many in the city and around the world, the local design community hasn’t rested on its laurels. Instead, many of its members have volunteered their services to bring accessible design to the residences of those seriously injured in the event. The result has been a collaborative, streamlined approach to pro-bono work that the effort’s leaders say can serve as a lesson beyond the City on a Hill.
In immediate aftermath of the bombing, Massachusetts’ Department of Public Safety established the Boston Survivors Accessibility Alliance (BSAA) which comprises nearly 40 volunteer partners, including architects, contractors, legal and financial agencies, and material suppliers, to provide those injured with the renovations needed to live comfortably in their homes. The volunteer design services are coordinated through Renovate for Recovery, a civic engagement committee of the Boston Society of Architects, led by Dana Cohen, AIA, project manager at Patrick Ahearn Architecture, in Boston, and Dawn Guarriello, AIA, a project architect at the Design Partnership of Cambridge, in Charlestown, Mass.
The committee has rallied a still-growing roster of architects, architectural interns, and designers to retrofit victims’ homes with universal design features. To date, Renovate for Recovery has contributed design services to three completed projects and is working on five others that are in various stages of design and construction, including a new construction project in Dracut, Mass. The group is joined by builders, contractors, suppliers, and manufacturers from the BSAA’s network.
The design community’s response has been positive. “I’ve had very little ‘no’ answers,” Cohen says. “Everybody wants to help. Everybody says, ‘Tell me what to do.’ The architecture community has really impressed me with their desire to give their expertise and their time.”
More than 70 architects and designers have signed up to help, says Gretchen Schneider Rabinkin, AIA, the executive director of the nonprofit The Community Design Resource Center (CDRC) in Boston. The CDRC is working with Boston Society of Architects’ Renovate for Recovery committee to provide liability insurance to its volunteer architects and designers and to serve as its fiscal agent.
Additionally, local building departments are encouraged to waive permitting fees and to expedite the approval process for the BSAA’s projects, says Robert Onofrey, AIA, who volunteered as the liaison between the state’s Public Safety department and the BSAA’s project teams. Onofrey says the state has supplied the alliance with approximately $200,000 to pay for expenses such as temporary housing for clients during their remodels and the few products or services for which the project teams can’t find a donor.
“We haven’t done this before,” he says. “It’s not as if we have a bureaucratic organization that’s set up to deal with things like this. We had to learn what we can offer, and how to find the resources to do it.”
For each project, a volunteer occupational therapist is assigned through the BSAA to advise the design team on the client’s new needs in the space. While the universal design principles employed have been somewhat consistent, each client is likely to present a different injury and range of accessibility. The spaces to be renovated are also diverse. Some of the clients recently purchased their residences while others lived there before sustaining their injuries. The spaces also vary in scale from a split-level to a three-story walk-up.
Schneider Rabinkin served as project architect for the group’s first job, which was the renovation of a split-level home in Nashau, N.H. The clients initially requested a simple tub-to-shower conversion but the project ended up including a suite of additional fixes such as paddle-style light switches, a continuous handrail on the staircase, simplified door pulls, and raised vanity heights in the bathroom.
Due to the nature of the bombs—which were riddled with shrapnel and detonated low to the ground—many victims sustained injuries to their feet and legs. The Boston Globereported in June that 16 people lost one or both legs, meaning many could be fitted for prosthetics, which provide their own challenges with regards to long-term accessibility. Additionally, the local media had revealed the identities of many if not most of the injured victims. Still, the BSAA couldn't contact them directly due to medical privacy laws. Instead, those in need of design services were required to reach out through their assigned-FBI liaisons or to be referred by their medical teams.
Michael McHugh, AIA, an architect at Davis Square Architects in Somerville, Mass., and an organizer for the Boston chapter of Architecture for Humanity, is no stranger to pro-bono work. He was tasked with renovating the three-story walk-up Somerville home of Karen Rand—who, according to local news station WGBH, lost the lower half of her left leg when the first of the two bombs exploded and now uses a prosthetic. McHugh first toured the residence with Rand and an occupational therapist to identify aspects of the current design that were proving troublesome.
As a result, the project team rebuilt the front steps of the approximately 100-year-old structure to eliminate the overhang on each stair tread and added an ADA-compliant handrail. They also updated a balcony on the third floor, “which was really sawdust being held together with paint,” McHugh says. Now Rand can go outside without dealing with three flights of stairs. Next month, the team will begin the final phase, which will add continuous handrails to the home’s narrow staircase, put reverse swings on select doors, and replace the kitchen’s vinyl flooring with a slip-resistant surface.
The first anniversary of the bombings that occurred on April 15, 2013 offered the opportunity to pay tribute to those who sustained injuries, though Cohen says the project teams still have a lot of work to do. “We’re trying really hard to set [those injured] up permanently with a home that can meet their needs,” she says. “We’re trying to be a long-term piece of the puzzle.”
That will require getting in touch with other individuals who were injured and could benefit from accessible design, as well as sourcing materials from a broader base of suppliers.
“Hopefully, no other city has to go through what Boston has gone through,” Onofrey says. “The design and construction community has stepped up … and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Photo courtesy Flickr user postcardjournal via a Creative Commons license.