More than a few of the winning entries in the annual Renovation Inspiration Contest have begun with a trip to an architect or designer's office or a visit to a big-box store. Bill and Allison Pileggi's kitchen odyssey began more simply: with a yardstick and roll of duct tape.
Their handicapped-accessible kitchen was chosen as a runner-up in the large category for projects costing $50,000 or more. The contest is sponsored by Dollar Bank and judged by employees of the Post-Gazette and Design Center Pittsburgh.
Twenty-five years ago, Mrs. Pileggi was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident, and ever since, accessibility has been her guiding concern.
The typical Pittsburgh home, with its stairs and basement, has never been an option for the couple, who met at a rehab facility in Harmarville while she was recuperating from the crash. That's why they moved into a 1950s ranch-style house in Lower Burrell in 2005 despite it being a lengthy commute from Mr. Pileggi's job as a nurse anesthetist with UPMC in West Mifflin. Without any steps or wheel-bumping threshholds, the four-bedroom house was about as wheelchair-friendly as you get without building from scratch.
Its 10- by 20-foot kitchen, well, that was another story. Designed for an able-bodied cook, it was pretty much a disaster for Mrs. Pileggi, who couldn't reach most of the cabinets and also had difficulty using the appliances. It also wasn't the prettiest room in the house.
"It was very dark," she notes, with two walls of dark-stained cherry cabinets and only one small window over the sink.
An entire industry has sprung up around Universal Design, which involves building or remodeling a home so that it ages along with the homeowner. But there's still not a lot of designers who specialize in kitchens for people in wheelchairs, say the Pileggis. When the couple embarked on the project in July 2011, they drew on personal experience and Internet searches to create a kitchen that would work for Mrs. Pileggi or almost any cook, really. To make it reality, they relied on general contractor Nick Cratsa and Crown Point, a New Hampshire custom cabinetry company that specializes in period styling.
Wheelchair users face everyday challenges that most people can't imagine: How do you get close enough to the stove or sink to prepare a meal or do the dishes? Where do you store pots and pans so they're easy to reach? How low can you make the counters without affecting the home's resale value? How do you solve the problem of maneuvering around appliances? Most important, at least to the Pileggis, how do you make a room meant for a wheelchair as pretty as it is functional?
"It's so specific," notes Mr. Pileggi, a retired Army reservist. "What's accessible to one person isn't to another ... Our goal was to take this totally inaccessible room, give it more work space, and make it beautiful and filled with light."
He started by measuring the height of his wife's knees, arm reach and wheelchair dimensions to determine where and how high to position appliances and custom cabinetry, which included a new 30-inch-tall center island topped with Misty White honed marble that would serve as the room's primary work space.
Adding 49 inches to make room for the island meant moving a wall, repositioning a doorway and losing a big laundry room and closet. To bring more sunlight into the room, they also expanded the window over the sink and added a large skylight.
Knowing they could only have two runs of cabinets made the project, which took a little more than four months, somewhat easier, Mr. Pileggi said. So did working with Crown Point, which is regarded for its ability to customize cabinetry to any size or space.
To accommodate Mrs. Pileggi's limited reach, the green Costa Esmerelda granite countertops are slightly lower than the standard 36 inches: 341/2 inches high on the sink side and 351/2 on either side of the Thermador induction cooktop, where the extra inch was necessary to allow for two uber-cool pull-out appliances: a Sharp microwave drawer and a Fisher & Paykel CoolDoor unit that goes from freezer to fridge to wine cooler at the touch of a button.
Other wheelchair-friendly touches include a Fisher & Paykel DishDrawer dishwasher and a swing-out pot filler faucet above the cooktop, which eliminates the need to carry heavy pots from the sink. Built into the island is a pop-up mixer stand for Mrs. Pileggi's cherry-red KitchenAid. (It's bolted down and always plugged in.) Kick-plate drawers a few inches off the floor offer easy access to dishes, pots and pans and open at a touch. Window box seats around the dining table offer additional low-level storage.
What really impresses, though, is the gorgeous marriage of form and function. Bright and airy, the kitchen now is a happy place and sleek, thanks to a stainless-steel Modern-Aire range hood with a decorative rim and rivets, a marble backsplash and sandstone floor, cut on the vein so it's striated.
All-white kitchens can be sterile, so for a bit of contrast the couple painted the island a super-deep green and the walls a pale moss color. There's also a built-in shelf for colorful display of Mrs. Pileggi's china collection.
Other touches that delight include an automatic dog door for their Cairn terrier, Danny, and a new laundry room/pantry with retractable pocket doors.
Before the renovation, said Mr. Pileggi, his wife was working -- rather unsafely -- at shoulder level; now, all preparation and cooking can comfortably be done at waist level.
"It's like night and day," he says. "We're unbelievably happy, and the best part is, we did it ourselves."
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay. First Published February 23, 2013 5:00 AM