LUTHERVILLE, Md. - The lives of the Slattery family of Cockeysville were forever changed on August 16, 2010, when a trucker fell asleep at the wheel and slammed into the family's car.
Susan Slattery died instantly, and her two sons, Peter and Matthew, were left critically injured. Ed Slattery became a single father and the primary caretaker of his son Matthew, who suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Now, nearly four years later, the family is preparing to move into a state-of-the-art home, designed from the ground up to help Matthew on his road to recovery.
Those involved with the project say it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to push the limits of universal design. The result is a place where Matthew Slattery can relax and be comfortable, and where he can grow his independence with the help of his family and occupational therapists.
It all started out as a model and the Slattery home is now a reality. It's a one-of-a-kind home that took two years to design and build. At the very heart of it is Matthew Slattery, 16.
It's a place where Matthew can continue to make strides since the accident forced him to re-learn everything that was once second nature. His progress since then has been nothing short of remarkable.
"It's incredible," said Ed Slattery. "It's incredible joy and pride and happiness at what he's able to accomplish. But you're never far from the fact that I taught him to walk once before, I shouldn't be teaching him to walk again. I shouldn't be teaching him to walk again."
The Slatterys' new home is designed to help Matthew and his father Ed navigate the challenges of each day and overcome them, and hopefully one day, prepare Matthew to walk steadily on his own two feet again.
The team Of Ed, Alter Urban Design Collaborative and occupational therapist Ingrid Kanics, carefully thought out every corner, selected each material, down to the hinges to adapt to Matthew's changing needs.
"We were able to design it from scratch," Kanics said. "The intent was to really push the limits as far as we could push it."
Kanics offers a unique perspective to the project. She's not only an occupational therapist, but also an interior designer. She has a personal connection, too. She was a high school classmate of Matthew's mother.
"I think she's probably looking down on all of this and going, 'Wow! Who knew?" Kanics said with a laugh.
Many elements of the house seem straight out of a science fiction movie: from Ipad controlled doors and shades to shelves that go up and down with the push of a button, and an overhead rail lift system to transport Matthew between rooms.
"We didn't want to make the house too, I guess, overly supportive, to the point where Matthew wouldn't be able to face the challenges that he's going to see in the outside world," Kanics said. "But we did want to make sure that it had spaces that allowed him to not always deal with frustration and a lot of things that he will be dealing with in the outside world. This is his home."
The house is so unique it has also become a teaching tool. The Slatterys opened up their doors to a group of occupational therapists from the American Occupational Therapy Association to tour and study a true example of universal design, which means a place people of all abilities can use and move through with ease.
"We just want them to see some of the things that are possible and not all these things have to be done for any one family," Ed Slattery said. "And if you're modifying an existing home maybe you can't do all of the things we've been able to do, but you can do some of them."
It's a home that'll give back to its owners and the environment.
"This house is an example of sustainability and how we should do things," said John Coplen, principal at Alter Urban Design Collaborative. "And it really is an example. It's a beautiful project layered with sustainability, that will be a netzero house, giving back to the grid."
As they complete the last finishing touches, it's an emotional time for everyone involved in the project. The feeling of seeing Matthew explore his new space is nothing short of bittersweet.
"It literally almost made me cry, because I had never seen him actually be able to navigate the space and I thought, 'All of that work is for something,'" Coplen said. "He really was able to do exactly what we thought he could do, and it made me so proud."
For a protective father like Ed, it means letting go more and more and allowing Matthew to find his own way.
"You want maximum independence for your children, and that's no different for Matthew than it is for my other children," he said. "I want maximum independence for him."
Ed is in the process of starting a non-profit
that'll help other families like his modify their homes to better serve a disabled family member. He continues to rally in Washington to increase safety standards in the trucking industry, including lowering the cap on the number of daily driving hours for truckers.
The Slatterys plan to move into their new home sometime in May.