The struggle to build enough homes to accommodate those with disabilities doesn’t bode well for the aging baby boomer population; our existing housing shortage, combined with elders’ desires to age independently, requires new solutions to accessible housing that can accommodate bodies of all abilities. Architect and Rhode Island School of Design professor Marc Harrison created one such option in 1973 through the ILZRO house—a modular, fully-accessible single-family dwelling. Now, 50 years later, RISD students, led by design historian Eric Anderson in his Design and Domesticity class, are revisiting Harrison’s work to explore possibilities for the future. Perhaps we can move forward by looking backward, examining the successes—and lapses—of the past to develop not only housing, but a new ethos for designing for all bodies.
The ILZRO house is the product of a unique collaboration: The International Lead and Zinc Corporation—an organization that advises on the international trade of lead and zinc—approached Harrison in the early 1970s to ask him to develop a home using prefabricated insulated zinc panels. He agreed, and worked alongside his students to design a home that would accommodate many residents with diverse abilities. Yet, accessible design was not a part of the corporate proposal: It was Harrison’s priority.
“My dad was very interested in the idea of designing for people who are not just the average people, and it was before we had ADA, or universal design was really a thing,” says Harrison's daughter Natasha, who recently completed the home’s restoration. “He was very much interested in [accessibility] despite the fact that many colleagues always asked him, ‘Why are you designing for those people?’ To which he’d reply, ‘because they are people.’”
The resulting ILZRO residence has a specific retro-futuristic quality: windows with rounded corners that allow ample light and clean, vertical paneling resulting from the use of the zinc panels that clip together without extensive construction. All of the universal design features of the 1,100-square foot dwelling are simple yet useful, including light switches and wall sockets at waist-height, a kitchen island sitting at 31 inches, and sinks that run six to seven inches deep. The project was completed in 1972, and has been continually occupied—first by the Harrison family and later byanother RISD professor, Lorraine Howes, who preserved the structure’s original details. Natasha purchased the house from Howes in 2021, years after her father’s death, and decided to offer the house to RISD professors, including Anderson, for teaching opportunities. Anderson saw the home as an opportunity to dig into Harrison’s archives and explore the role of diverse bodies within Modernism’s rigid contexts.
“I've always thought about houses as sites for innovative design going back to European Modernism in 1920s,” Anderson says. “Kitchens in particular, as a site of work where the body engages with the house’s equipment, are particularly important. That's something, too, that goes back to the 1920s: redesigning the kitchen in order to make the house more serviceable for particular people—originally, women.” But it wasn’t until the 1970s, he says, an era that gave way for design beyond Modernism, which also opened doors to thinking about an expanded user group.
His Design and Domesticity class, held during the fall 2022 semester, brought students to study the RISD archives to better understand how Harrison’s past students were addressing then-uncommon universal design. “We were thinking about how design engages with people beyond the idealized categories of the universal human that Modernism had always worked with, and instead thinking about people who are marginalized in society, how design has participated in that marginalization, and how designers might confront and change course,” he says. The class included a visit to the ILZRO house where students continued their research on-the-ground. So, the students cooked a meal together in the home’s accessible kitchen.
“I was watching them trying to navigate together. They hadn’t cooked together before, I don’t think, and I think they were coming from different places, with different sizes and different abilities,” Natasha says. “That was a fascinating experiment for me to watch because I know that was what they were doing the Universal Kitchen.”
The RISD Universal Kitchen course developed in the early 1990s after the ILZRO house was completed. Under Harrison, as well as professors Jane Langmuir and Peter Wooding, students analyzed individual movements required to make a meal, and used their findings to design universal kitchens for small, medium, and large living areas. Anderson’s class also dug into the Universal Kitchen archival materials. But, the research his students performed wasn’t necessarily meant to make them into accessibility specialists; instead, Anderson’s goal was to help students better understand how the idea of the ‘universal’ has evolved, and how educational institutions can further critique the ways we build for all abilities.
“This idea of the universal is so important within the history of Modernism, and it's something that has been used and interpreted in different ways,” Anderson says. “I think there's a particular idea of the universal—there's a certain idea of inclusiveness around [it]—that was part of the 1970s discussion. It's different than other historical ideas of the universal and is being critiqued now in certain ways.”
Could we be building more homes like ILZRO—efficient, accessible, and affordable—right now? Absolutely. But design students should also be progressively pushing our collective understanding of ‘universal’ ability: how it manifests, is attended to or made invisible, and how it might be celebrated through design.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.
Read more from Anjulie Rao: Design education needs a dose of radical imagination. | Can the rust belt become the housing belt? | On unionizing as pedagogy.