This post was written by IAWA Student Library Assistant Neera Naran. She studies landscape architecture in the College of Art, Architecture, and Design at Virginia Tech.

The Steven and Cathi House Architectural Collection is available for research in the University Libraries’ Special Collections and University Archives at Virginia Tech.

On the Baja Peninsula, overlooking the Sea of Cortez, sits Casa Cabo Pulmo, House + House Architects’ one-of-a-kind, fully accessible home. Covered in rich hues of red, orange, and yellow and an abundance of floor-to-ceiling windows, the two-story house radiates warmth, reflecting the surrounding landscape. Casa Cabo Pulmo, built in 2010, is just one of many environmentally conscious and well-choreographed establishments that Cathi and Steven House have created in their careers. Alumni of the Virginia Tech architecture program, where they met in the 1970s, the Houses formed House + House Architects in 1982 and since then have garnered over 50 design awards, been featured in numerous national and international publications, lectured across North America, and published three books. When beginning the creative process for Casa Cabo Pulmo, Steven and Cathi approached the home through the lens of universal design, something that can be observed across many of their projects.

In the practice of architecture, historically, accessibility has often been an afterthought, i.e., not intentionally integrated into the design and aesthetic of a project. Universal design is making things accessible regardless of physical or mental ability and doing so without the need for adaptation or specialization. The term was coined in the 1980s by architect Ronald Mace, who created universal design as someone with first-hand experience living in a world that didn’t always consider accessibility, as he used a wheelchair for his whole life after contracting polio at the age of nine. Universal design simply refers to design usable by all people. To ensure the creation of a space suitable for all types of abilities, it’s important to take on accessibility as a key part of the design process, thinking about how it shapes user experience in the present and future of the project.

Accessibility and sustainability were considered throughout all the design moves with Casa Cabo Pulmo. The house is a happy blend of the owners, Patricia Wright and Debra Zeyen, as Patricia is a disability rights activist and Debra is an executive director for an institute in Baja, Mexico, striving to protect coastal ecosystems. Wright and Zeyen wanted to make sure the house could withstand time and provide for their needs long into the future, as they had current physical demands for themselves and friends, as well as a future where they could both possibly have disability concerns.

House + House Architects believe that accessibility shouldn’t be an afterthought in design. In the words of Steven House, “A lot of it comes down to common sense. We assume people are going to get older in their home, and you might eventually have a harder time working and seeing. For every project we do, we think about these concepts and incorporate them from the beginning so they’re not tacked on” (2015). Accessibility should be fully incorporated in design strategies, addressed as an integral part of the experience it provides, not merely baseline functionality. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance is done in a tasteful manner in the style of Cathi House, showing there was thought and intention behind it, and displaying accessibility in a beautiful way.

South elevation view where the ramp entrance is shown, the entire structure incorporated into the design of the house. From the Steven and Cathi House Architectural Collection, Ms2006-017, Special Collections, University Libraries, Virginia Polytechnic and State University.

One of the main features of the house is a winding 165 ft. ramp that can be used to get from one level of the house to the other, including terraces for stopping and observing surrounding views of the landscape and water. Many of the design choices were informed by the landscape, including the intricate hand railing for the ramp that casts shadows which mimic the waves of the ocean. The ramp presents twists and turns in order for the user to spend time in the space, appreciating the beauty it has to offer, rather than just passing through. In addition to the ramp, Cathi House included hydraulic lifts on ceilings, lower light switches and handles, accessible bathrooms and showers, access to all patios, appliances and counters at a lower level, higher outlets, curved benches, and wide hallways to contribute to the universal design of the house. While some of these features may seem insignificant to an able-bodied person, these make all the difference in the everyday life of someone with accessibility concerns. Although they were made with the intention of being used primarily by those with disabilities, the owners believed these design additions to be helpful for all, regardless of ability.

Along with accessibility, sustainability was also heavily addressed in the design of the house, as the owners wanted an energy-independent home. Features like passive and active solar heating, convection and shading, and cross ventilation were added to the establishment. Additionally, water storage in the ADA accessible ramp for rainwater with an irrigation and purification system was designed. Material usage was also informed by sustainability and energy use, as Palapa roofing and shades, concrete flooring, and solar panels were included.

First floor plan with view of the open layout, including features like concrete flooring and the 165 ft. ramp. From the Steven and Cathi House Architectural Collection, Ms2006-017, Special Collections, University Libraries, Virginia Polytechnic and State University.

Not only does House + House Architects put the idea of universal design into practice, but they spread their knowledge of it, as well. Cathi and Steven believe that universal design isn’t discussed or taught properly at universities, and they make it a mission to have accessibility be a large part of their teachings to students. In their program, The Center for Architecture Sustainability + Art (CASA), the Houses host a group of Virginia Tech architecture students every summer at their school in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. This study abroad program strives to teach students how to make their environment a thoughtful and sustainable place. The group travels to multiple cities in Mexico, observing the history of architecture in the past in order to create connections to architecture of the future. They prioritize informing young designers with the knowledge of accessibility and sustainability so that in the future, they are able to think of these as integral parts of the process. Ultimately, CASA provides students with a deeper understanding of what it means to be a designer living in a place that harmonizes with an interconnected and diverse environmental system.

Universal design is key to the future of architecture, as it creates spaces made for the widest range of bodies, centering user experience in the creative process. How people function in a space and how they feel in a space should go hand in hand when developing a design, as Cathi House has demonstrated in Casa Cabo Pulmo, which is a beautiful testament to what accessibility and sustainability can look like when considered essential factors of design.


Carey, Lydia. “Award-winning Baja home proves accessibility can be beautiful.” Mexico News Daily, 28 August 2019,

House + House Architects. “Casa Cabo Pulmo.” House and House, undated,

Sisson, Patrick. “A Remote Baja Home Built to Be Accessible to Everyone.” Curbed, VOX Media, 13 August 2015,

The Universal Design Project. “What is Universal Design? – The UD Project.” The Universal Design Project, undated,