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Boston’s second-stage responders

First comes the emergency. Then comes the “Now what?” The immediate aftermath of last April’s Marathon attacks was a job for the first responders. But now that we have moved from the crisis into the long haul, some of the ongoing problems and consequences of the Marathon bombings are being addressed by people we might call second-stage responders — including architects, in ways that could help not only those directly affected by the bombing, but society as a whole.

Architect Dana Cohen works in an office in the Back Bay, right around the corner from the Marathon finish line. Every day she saw evidence of the tragedy — blocked-off streets, impromptu memorials — and she wanted to find a way to use her design skills as part of the recovery effort. “It was literally so close to home. I started to think about what architects can do: Make homes more accessible.”

Three days after the bombings, she was already working with Dawn Guarriello and other architects to form a volunteer initiative called Renovate for Recovery, which would partner with the Boston Society of Architects and the Boston Survivors Accessibility Alliance (under the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety) to modify the homes of Marathon bombing victims free of charge. “Everyone wanted to help,” she says, but there was no infrastructure in place. Everything had to be organized and coordinated between government and volunteer agencies: the design efforts of the architects; the associated services of engineers, occupational therapists, builders, and lawyers; the donation of building materials; and the construction process for each home. Now that the network is in place, Cohen says, “I hope we can preserve this and pass it on so we don’t have to start from scratch next time.”

Working with Renovate for Recovery has made architect Gretchen Schneider Rabinkin think more about accessibility in general. As she walked through the house of an injured couple who could no longer step over the lip of the bathtub and had asked to have their tub converted to a walk-in shower, Rabinkin and the occupational therapist who was with her began noticing other ways in which the design no longer worked for its occupants. The project ended up including lever door handles and paddle-type light switches throughout the house, a higher bathroom sink and toilet, lever-operated faucets, and new front steps that could be navigated with a walker.


“This project has made me think about how physically challenging our world can be,” says Rabinkin. “Washing your face, getting coffee, getting from your house to your car — these are all things where good design can make a difference, and people don’t always know to ask for these kinds of modifications.”


Working with the survivors is “profound and humbling,” says Rabinkin. She points out that the architects’ challenge is not just how to make a home work, it’s how to make it look and feel like home, not like a hospital. “With these projects we’re working with average homes, the full range of New England housing stock — multi-level houses, city condos, triple-deckers. Maybe this is a mini-catalogue of prototypes that will help us figure out how to do these accessibility modifications for everyone as the population ages.”

At the beginning, says Dana Cohen, everyone wanted to give but it took time for the architects to be connected to the survivors. Now that the networks are in place, many building materials are still needed, ranging from lifts to showers to floor tile to asphalt for driveways, as well as labor such as painting, electrical, and plumbing work.

There is also more thinking to be done. In the same way that Hurricane Katrina created awareness of sea level rise and led to improvements in construction practices and disaster preparedness, the Marathon bombings have afforded painful but productive lessons in creating new organizational networks and accessible housing. The term “universal design” is often used to describe design that is both aesthetically pleasing and accessible to everyone, regardless of ability. Maybe in Boston right now the term has an additional meaning. As Gretchen Schneider Rabinkin says, “These are people who could be any of us and buildings that could be any of ours.”


Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her latest book is “The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story.’’