Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


“RESTORING A HOUSE FOR EVERY BODY,” by Penelope Green, The New  York Times, January 29, 2023, rekindled my interest in “Universal Design,” as described in SimanaitisSays back in 2014. 

Penelope Green writes, “Half a century ago, Marc Harrison built a prototype for a home that would accommodate people of all ages and abilities. Now his daughter has restored it.” The home was a collaboration of Harrison and his students at the Rhode Island School of Design and a showcase for what is now known as universal design. 

This and other images by Tony Luong for The New York Times, January 29, 2023.

“Not that you would notice those accommodations,” Green says. “Most of them are hidden in plain sight.” Here are tidbits gleaned from her article.

Prefab Zinc Structure. “The house was designed like a LEGO toy,” Green observes, “a kit of parts that clipped together and then were bolted using basic tools—no experience required. No part was so big or heavy that it needed any lifting equipment. And the pieces could be delivered in flat packs (as Ikea furniture would later be) on flatbed trailers.”

“Prefab housing has a long history of never quite taking off,” Green says. “In 2021, prefabricated—or ‘non-site built,’ to use the industry term—single-family homes accounted for just 2 percent of the total of homes constructed, according to census data and analysis from the National Association of Home Builders. That was down from 7 percent in 1998, the highest percentage in the last three decades.”

The outside deck could be fitted with a ramp in lieu of steps, or the design nestled into the landscape.

Green notes, “The heady idea was that this form of construction would cut costs with its efficiencies, and with its material—zinc panels filled with foam—which could be recycled. (The cost was estimated at $20 a square foot, or about $133 today.) Maintenance costs would also be reduced, because zinc develops an appealing patina and doesn’t need to be painted or repainted. (Think of the roofs of Paris!)”

No More Picture-Hanging Nails. Green says, “It was soundproof, fireproof, bug proof, thermally efficient and, cunningly, magnetic, so that the sleek light fixtures (cone-shaped sconces in the bedrooms) and the magnetized picture hangers Mr. Harrison designed could be attached firmly to the walls and moved around easily.”

I confess I’m puzzled because zinc is not magnetic. Maybe the interior walls were otherwise treated?

Other Design Nuances. “The light switches are flat,” Green recounts. “The outlets are raised to hip height. All the door handles and faucets are levers. The interior of the house is on one level, with wide doorways and no thresholds.”

A Functional Kitchen. Green cites Harrison once describing a typical kitchen as “so poorly conceived and unaccommodating that it could disable the healthiest cook.”

Mr. Harrison’s daughter, Natasha Harrison, a glass sculptor and the executive director of The Newport Tree Conservancy, and her husband, Ben Randall, a professional woodworker, have restored the house as an important part of Mr. Harrison’s legacy.

The design includes “a pop-up dishwasher, a medley of refrigerators, some as small as drawers, pullout counters and appliances, a pasta station and other flourishes.” Another universal design feature is an oven that opens like a cupboard and has a pullout counter “strong enough to hold a Thanksgiving turkey.” 

I particularly like the slideout bins for pasta and other pantry staples. 

A Universal Design Summary. A colleague at Rhode Island School of Design recalls, “Marc always said he didn’t want to design objects that were for the prime of your life, but for your whole life.” ds

A most thoughtful view. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023 


  1. Tom Tyson
    February 2, 2023

    Galvanized steel perhaps, instead of simply zinc panels?

    Interesting, this will require more study.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: