Beauty and Function: Makeover raises the bar for accessibility

When Wanda Chenier decided the time had come to remodel her home, she looked at what it would take to make it safe and accessible.

More than anything, she knew the remodel would have to fit her needs. Chenier,  51, is a quadriplegic as the result of a 1997 accident involving a logging truck in Oregon while she was on vacation with her then-husband and two kids, eight and five. Now, a wheelchair is a constant in her life.

When she decided she would remodel, she took stock: She knew her Poway house had good bones, which was one of the reasons she chose to move there 15 years ago to raise her children, Tara,  now 24, and Thomas,  21. She liked the bright, open floor plan and the look of tile and wood throughout the house. But, eventually she tired of the cramped, tiny kitchen that made navigating it in a wheelchair a chore. And, she wanted access to every area in and outside the house.

Chenier, who was a nurse specializing in oncology and hospice before her accident, did hours and hours of research and consulted with an architect. She had always been a fan of remodeling shows and now it was her turn to turn her dreams into reality. The result is a universally-designed home that is fully accessible to anyone regardless of mobility. She loves it. And, she is not alone.

The house, built in 1976, was expanded by 582 feet to its present 3,200 square feet. Very little in the house was left untouched but much of the additional footage went into expanding the kitchen. She can access all the rooms and has nine security-controlled doors which make it easy for her to go in and out.

The major work commenced in 2009, while Tara and Thomas were away at college. Chenier and her husband divorced in 2005.

Changes to the house were not only to the interior. Outdoors, a slide and a spa were added to the swimming pool. The area now includes a fire pit for the family to enjoy.  A retaining wall  was added and the patio area was leveled, making it accessible and wheelchair friendly. And, the best part is Chenier can go outdoors to enjoy the view of the adjacent country club green. Country living is one of the features of the area where she lives and thanks to the remodel, she can truly enjoy it.

One of the important aspects of the remodel inside was to make the bathrooms accessible.

But the main work was in the kitchen. It bears little resemblance to the original, which was the size and footprint of what is now her pantry. The new kitchen is three times the size of the original.

What even the most casual visitor to the home notices is the well-lit spacious kitchen with all the touches to make it work for Chenier and anyone who uses it. It is a kitchen made for entertaining and  Chenier loves to entertain. Is it any surprise that this dream of hers that cost about $150,000 took a big chunk out of her total  remodel budget? Her goal was to make her kitchen stress free, and by all indications, she succeeded.

The kitchen itself includes a 17-foot island with a dining area for six. It also has four work stations. The counters are 32 inches high to accommodate Chenier but the height is also much appreciated by her mother who is under five feet tall. Because Chenier is so in tune with the needs of wheelchair users, toe-kicks–the recess between the cabinets and the floor–are nine inches, providing clearance for the wheels of her chair.

In addition to a stove and oven, there is an induction cook top in the island with a pop-up downdraft.

A cutting board below the chair-height microwave doubles as a shelf  for hot dishes when they come out of the oven.

Chenier has thought of everything. There’s a warming oven, ovens that are set lower, utensil drawer, a pot filler faucet placed near the stove so heavy pots of water need not be carried from the sink, numerous outlets, a desk area, a television,  and pegboard dividers for dishes. The windows are double-paned glass.

A dining room off the kitchen includes a 72-inch round granite table with a lazy Susan designed by Chenier. Eight chairs fit around the table that is free of obstruction and easily accommodates wheelchairs.

The type of flooring was very important to Chenier. The dining area has the original porcelain tiles. To accent this tile, the new kitchen floor looks like wood, but it is really porcelain tile as well. Not only is it wheelchair and dog-friendly, but it is easy to clean and care for.

In all, the remodeling project took months–six for the kitchen, bath and laundry areas and three weeks for the bedroom. Meals were eaten in the garage while the kitchen was being remodeled. When work was started on the master bathroom, Chenier stayed in a hotel at least twice a week so she could shower.

Throughout much of the work cheering her on was the new love in her life, Mark Barber, 55, whom she met three years ago, via the internet. She remembers writing that she takes her chair with her wherever she goes. Barber, who was born with spina bifida, responded that he does, too. “I don’t remember ever being this much in love,” Chenier says of their romance.They plan to be married next October, when Barber retires from his job as a 911 fire dispatcher in concert with the Ontario Police Department. For now, it is a commuter romance, but Barber is there for the Super Bowl parties and  important family events.

The house is still not quite done to their satisfaction. Chenier and Barber are talking about remodeling the master bedroom closet to make more space for their combined belongings when he becomes a permanent part of the household next October.

In the meanwhile, they are going over guest lists for the wedding. And, yes, they plan to dance at the reception. Chenier is a board member of, an organization that hosts all types of dancing for people with disabilities.

This is the first in a series about Wanda Chenier’s remarkable home makeover. The series covers how Wanda remodeled for accessibility and visit ability; technology and products she selected for safety; details about how she solved the bathroom and bedroom challenges in the original home and how she built her dream kitchen.