Julie and Tony Panaro live on the tranquil waterfront in Chesapeake City in a house surrounded by trees.
It’s a green setting—without and within—with rhododendron and laurel outside and environmentally friendly materials and systems inside the house.
But the Panaros have taken the concept of existing in harmony with the flow of life a significant step further. Their design isn’t just for tree huggers. It embraces people, too, with and without physical disabilities.
“This is our forever home,” Julie says. “It’s a place we can grow old in without ever worrying about how we will get around.”
Julie is a real estate attorney. Tony is a builder. Together, they own Panaro Construction, which specializes in custom homebuilding and renovation.
The Panaros also are creators of EverLife Design, a concept that marries green building and accessible design, brought together in a way that creates spaces that are beautiful, energy-saving and sustainable.
“Green, accessible design isn’t only efficient,” Julie says. “It can be luxurious.”
Their commitment to those principles is evident in their home, an incubator of sorts for green and accessible design. They often open the house to like-minded souls, who can experience green, universal design firsthand.
Before they built their EverLife home, the Panaros lived in a traditional, two-story Colonial. They decided to sell that house and build from the ground up after Tony checked out an overgrown plot that had been languishing on the market near Chesapeake City. The lot was so thick with trees, it was hard to walk through. When Tony finally made it to the other side, he was amazed to find a sweeping vista of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal.
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“I called Julie on my cell phone right away and said, ‘Hey, I can see boats,’” he recalls.
At first, the Panaros found themselves swimming upstream in their plans for a dream house that would be LEED-certified by the U.S. Green Building Council. In a becalmed real estate market, it took two years to sell their previous home.
As they pondered the blueprints over time, the couple realized they would be happier in a house with less square footage, a home in which the Panaros and their guests would enjoy each and every room. They revised their plans, slicing 1,000 square feet from the design.
“Two weeks after the plans were done, we sold the house,” Julie recalls. “It was a clear sign that we were doing the right thing.”
Though the Panaros are both youthful and fit, they were intent on installing features in the house that would readily enable them to age in place or remain in their home if they became ill.
They had learned from personal experience that accessibility is an issue many people don’t ponder until it is thrust upon them. Julie’s father was in his 50s when he suffered a debilitating stroke.
“One day he was an active man, playing golf and enjoying the outdoors, and the next day he was dealing with paralysis,” she says.
The EverLife concept enhances accessibility by integrating subtle shifts in design that are not apparent to the casual observer. Light switches are positioned at a height slightly lower than standard, within easy reach of someone in a wheelchair. Electrical outlets are placed higher than usual. “It’s also great if you have a bad back,” Julie says.
All doorways are 3 feet wide to readily accommodate a wheelchair. Wider doorways also facilitate moving large pieces of furniture.
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To gather input for their concept, the Panaros formed an advisory panel consisting of the AARP, the Delaware Chapter of the Visiting Nurse Association and the University of Delaware’s newly launched Delaware Design Institute, as well as a family friend who is in a wheelchair.
“We soon realized there is an opportunity to make a choice that makes a house more green and accessible at every step in the process,” Julie says.
On the first floor, there are two bedrooms and a full bath with a tub equipped with a fold-down seat. The first floor also includes a home office, powder room and a wide, vaulted corridor leading to a gathering area that encompasses a living area, kitchen and dining space that opens on to a patio with a scenic view of the canal.
In the kitchen, the couple installed a pull-out counter-height cutting board, which makes it easy for a person in a wheelchair to prep food. Bi-fold cupboard doors under the sink fold back, providing ready wheelchair access.
The Panaros opted for casement windows over standard double-hung windows. Casements, with panels that crank out, enable the homeowners to enjoy unobstructed views and breezes. It also is far easier for someone with limited dexterity to operate a casement window—yet another win-win.
Throughout the house, there are no thresholds, which are bumps in the road for people with walkers and wheelchairs. There is also no step from the attached garage. “That also makes it much easier to come in from the garage if you’re young and have a bunch of kids,” Tony says.
The second floor is dedicated to a sumptuous master suite with a bedroom, sitting room, a spacious walk-in closet and a large balcony overlooking the water.
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The second floor is accessed by a wide staircase. But if the Panaros ever need it, there’s a three-story shaft, from the basement to the second floor, for an elevator.
“And if we don’t need it, we have even more closet space,” Tony says.
An elegant bath is open to the bedroom. There are no doors on the oversized shower. A floor of river rock provides a natural, no-slip surface. The Panaros meticulously researched toilets before settling on a water-saving unit. “We know more about toilets than we ever thought possible,” Julie says.
The house is heated and cooled through geothermal power, which taps energy from the Earth.
So how much more expensive is it to build a home that is both green and accessible?
Costs vary widely, according to the size, amenities and finishes in the home, Tony notes. On average, expect to pay $125 per square foot for a standard single-family home. The price tag for a home that is friendly to both the environment and the people who live there would cost $223 per square foot, before factoring in energy savings.
Then there’s the intangible benefit of doing the right thing for the planet.
“After living in a green home, we never want to live anywhere else,” Julie says.