Accessible Milwaukee Idea Home

History and R2D2 Center Involvement

The Milwaukee Idea Home (MIH) was a project of the Community Design Solutions initiative of the Milwaukee Idea and IndependenceFirst. Ownership of MIH was transferred from UWM to IndependenceFirst. The development of the MIH was a collaborative effort with contributions from UWM’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage DistrictWe Energies, IndependenceFirst, and UWM Department of Occupational Therapy’s R2D2 Center. The present website will focus on the R2D2 Center’s involvement, which include two vital contributions: universal design and accessibility of the home. Those at R2D2 who were integral to these contributions include Director, Roger O. Smith, Ph.D., OT, FAOTA, and Technical Specialist, Todd Schwanke, MSE, ATP.

Photo of Milwaukee Idea Home ribbon cutting ceremony
Figure 1: Photo of Milwaukee Idea Home ribbon cutting ceremonyView EqTD
Dr. Smith and Mr. Schwanke’s influence can be seen in many of the home’s design features. They first focused on providing universal access and flexibility through the application of universal design principles, and then used assistive technology (AT) to meet the individual needs that are not met by the inherent design of the home.

Mission and Description of MIH

The MIH was completed in 2004 with a range of objectives including: affordability, conservation, and accessibility. One of the most notable differences and also the largest challenges of the design was the small physical size. Many available designs for accessible single family homes make use of large, single level floor plans that are more conducive to suburbs. The MIH was designed for an urban setting, Milwaukee, which has small and narrow lots much like other older cities. In addition, the target price of the home also necessitates a smaller floor plan. As a result, the project team had to explore how space could be used more efficiently while still providing accessibility.

People who know that the house was designed and built with accessibility in mind are often puzzled when they discover that it has a second floor. They are even more puzzled when they find out it does not have an elevator. This design parameter illustrates how you can apply universal design, but this does not assure that the result is universal access. The decision to compromise and build the house with two floors was made for several reasons:

  • The design was not only delineated for people who use wheelchairs and have difficulties climbing stairs. There are many types of disabilities that do not significantly effect people’s ability to use stairs.
  • There is an accessible bedroom and bathroom on the first floor in addition to the kitchen, living room, storage, utilities, and washer/dryer.
  • The design takes into account the possibility that an elevator or lift could be added near the stairway with little modification to the home.
  • If the price of the house is to meet its affordability goal, it was not feasible to include an elevator in every version of the home. It would be something that is added by individual homeowners if desired.
  • For someone with a caregiver, the person with the disability may live on the first floor, while the caregiver who is able to use the stairs lives on the second floor.
  • The lot size the design is targeted for is not large enough to build a single level home with adequate square footage. The second floor adds square footage that is necessary to create marketability and resale value.

Current Use of MIH

The MIH is currently used by IndependenceFirst as a transitional housing facility. Individuals may live in the home for up to 59 days while they transition to their own dwelling in the community. In addition, public tours are occasionally given by the staff at MIH to those interested. Please contact IndependenceFirst to schedule a tour with a staff member.

Historical Project Team

  • Todd Schwanke, M.S.E., ATP
  • Roger O. Smith, Ph.D., OT, FAOTA

Project Bibliography

MIH Presentations by the R2D2 Center

Schwanke, T. D. & Smith, R. O. (2006, February 3). The Milwaukee Idea Home (MIH) – Accessibility, affordability, and environmental friendliness in a small floor plan. Presented at the International Conference on Aging, Disability, and Independence (ICADI), St. Petersburg, FL.

Schwanke, T. D. & Smith, R. O. (2004, May 23). The Milwaukee Idea Home and achieving accessibility and universal access in a small footprint. Presented at the American Occupational Therapy Association Annual Conference, Minneapolis, MN.