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The house that Lee built

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It’s been said that moving from one house to another is one of the most stressful things an adult will experience in their lifetime. Imagine, then, the stress level of building a home from the ground up that is designed for someone with unique needs and has to meet the stringent requirements and regulations set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This is the project that Bethel, NY resident Lee Karasik has been working on for the past two years, and I sat down with Lee to discuss his journey toward independent living.

“As far as we know, this is the first private, ADA-compliant home to ever be built in Sullivan County,” Lee said during an interview last month. “I can’t tell you how exciting it is and how I hope that this experience building my dream house might serve as an inspiration for others with varying abilities.” Lee, who was born with cerebral palsy, has used a walker and wheelchair his entire life. “We all start out crawling around the house,” Lee said, “but I’ve been doing it my whole life. On top of that, I’ve been crawling around my parents’ house, and while they have been amazing and incredibly supportive, I’m ready to live on my own.”

Making that idea a reality has not been easy. “At 25, I knew that I wanted to do this, but I’ve never actually built anything—not even a birdhouse,” Karasik said with a laugh. “Fortunately, I work at a place that specializes in caring for people with varying abilities, and am surrounded by knowledgeable people who have a very special skill set. Without my incredible team, I doubt I’d have been able to achieve my goals.” Lee works full time as a training support specialist at the Center for Discovery, which supports individuals with varying special needs, and it is there that Karasik forged a bond with David Fanslau, who has been instrumental in making Lee’s dream a reality.

“David helped me with every facet of the project, including putting together my dream team. Of course, I had to find a piece of property first.” Knowing that he wanted to stay near his family, and that a house on the same block was in foreclosure, Lee managed to purchase that property, tear down the existing dwelling and start fresh with architect Peter Cirillo and contractor Dan Brown, who worked in tandem to meet ADA compliance.

“Everything is accessible” Lee said, pointing out the cabinetry installed by Mike Scardino. “I have counters that I can work with, self-closing cupboards that can be reached from my chair, and even a cool microwave that has a drawer that slides out with the push of a button. Check out the stove.” he said. “It’s called an induction cook top and is paired with magnetic pots and pans that tell the stove what to do.”

The kitchen is also outfitted with ADA-compliant counters and two sinks. “Yes, there are a lot of rules that have to be followed” Karasik said, pointing to the 30-inch-high work stations. “But I’d rather everything was too low instead of too high.”

All in all, Lee’s ranch-style home is 1,987 square feet, and has three bedrooms and three baths. “It’s kind of a ‘smart home,” Lee said, pointing out the electronics of the house, which include a sophisticated voice-recognition security system and video screens that allow Lee to see who’s at the door from every room of the house. “This was a great project for us to collaborate on,” said P&N Alarm systems’ Jared Kaufman. “Everything we have installed for Lee’s new home is state of the art.”

While the heat radiates from the floor, Lee’s sound system emanates from the ceilings, even in the bathrooms, which are designed for his unique needs. “All of the areas were designed with an ADA aspect,” Karasik informed. “That’s why I needed an amazing architect like Peter. We had to meet certain radius requirements that allow for five-foot turnaround in the hallways, too.” He noted that there are no sills anywhere. “It’s called ‘zero threshold’ and the tiled floors in the showers are specifically  designed on a grade, with bathroom bars, and emergency call buttons in each.”

Light switches, outlets and door jambs aside, no stone was left unturned in Lee’s quest to create this beautiful, highly functional home with a view of the lake and room for the family he hopes to share it with. I spoke with Town of Bethel Supervisor Dan Sturm. “He pretty much did it all himself,” Sturm said. “Our building department worked hand-in-hand with Fanslau and his support team, but it’s all Lee... [W]e are in awe of what Lee has accomplished... we would love to see more construction like this happen down the road. Lee has pretty much set the gold standard for others to follow.”

Now that the hard part is done, Lee is busy decorating his new home and preparing to move in and host his first housewarming party. “I just got my COA (certificate of occupancy) and the new kitchen table has arrived,” he enthused. “It’s all coming together and I couldn’t be happier, or more excited. Even the dog approves of the floor plan!”

Pausing to reflect, Lee’s demeanor grew more serious. “I wish I could put you in a wheelchair for a week,” he said thoughtfully, “so that you could really grasp what it’s like to live in my shoes. Simple things you might take for granted, like changing a light bulb or taking a shower, can be a real challenge for those of us with what I like to call ‘varying needs’ but that many consider a disability.

“I prefer to think of it as a challenge,” he said with a smile. “I was lucky, though. I did this all with no financial assistance, but others might not have that privilege. I hope to be able to advocate for others who are looking to create their own barrier-free totally accessible homes, so that they, too can follow their dream of independent living. If I can do it, you can too.”

This is the house that Lee built.

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