The Freedom Foundation is made of foam that insulates the home and acts as a form for the structure’s foundation. Implementing the product in the construction process has eliminated the need for steps leading up to or inside the house. Photo by Mike Nichols
The secret to creating hundreds of easily accessible homes for those with mobility impairments was right under John Bitely’s nose all along.
For years, Bitely, president and owner of Rockford-based residential development firm Sable Homes, had been looking for a way to create affordable housing that could be easily accessed by those in West Michigan with mobility impairments, particularly those with disabilities, aging senior citizens and wounded veterans.
His searching eventually led him back to a technology he’s been using since before the Great Recession: foam insulation billets he now calls the “Freedom Foundation.”
“In West Michigan, barrier-free living has not been readily available at an affordable price,” he said. “We feel it is important to offer a safe environment for those who are elderly or disabled. Our new Freedom Foundation technology will allow individuals to live safely at lower costs than with traditional building materials.”
Bitely and his team had originally used the specialized foam to compete with the modular-home industry almost seven years ago.
“One of the frustrating things we’ve seen is we’d been watching what people pay for modular homes,” he said. “They’d drive them in, take the wheels off, slap them on the ground and they were paying an outrageous amount of money for what we thought was a less than adequate product.”
That’s where the foam insulation came in. The foam, which comes from Atlas EPS in Bryon Center, is generally used in Michigan and other northern states to allow homes to be built on a slab foundation while still being well-insulated. The thick, foam barrier surrounds the foundation, insulating it and protecting the cement from frost.
“The first home we built with this project was probably about six years ago. This goes back to when we wanted to compete with the modular (market)… We’ve got this product out and it’s stood the test of time. What is new is how we’re tying this into a market segment that’s underserved,” Bitely said.
“(We asked), ‘Why don’t we just make this out of that type of product?’ In so doing, we developed this piece of foam, which in turn ends up being the form and the base foundation of the house.”
So how does this new Freedom Foundation foam help people with disabilities? It helps because now Sable is using it to build ranch houses with zero steps. Almost all modular homes and traditional homes involve some kind of steps, either inside or by the doors, Bitely said, and that can be trouble for someone in a wheelchair or using a walker. But now Sable is building homes flat enough to the point that raised steps or ramps are no longer required.
Another nice feature about these homes is they can also cost less, Bitely said.
“We have a model home that we built. It’s just under about 1,400 square feet. It’s a ranch style: three bedrooms, two baths. It has an oversize, three-stall garage,” he said. “We will sell that here in Sparta for under $160,000 with the lot,” he said.
Different disabilities require different solutions, and Sable is also customizing its Freedom Foundation homes based on the individual buyer’s needs. One home was created with special door levers and a microwave built into the kitchen island for a woman in a wheelchair with limited hand use, Bitely said.
That’s good news for a number of underserved markets, he said.
“We’re using this technology not only in the world of disability, but also aging … for those who are retiring and they don’t want to ever move from their home, and they know as they get older steps are a problem or they’re going to need a wheelchair. This can eliminate all of those barriers.”
One of the most important affordable housing needs for people with disabilities is that the homes be both accessible and integrated into good neighborhoods. These houses are more likely to be built in areas connected to transportation, including the bus transit system, Bitely said.
“With some budgets, home buyers requiring accessible homes are limited to modular homes, or worse, homes that do not fully meet their needs, due strictly to foundation costs,” said David Bulkowski, executive director of Disability Advocates of Kent County.
“The Freedom Foundation will provide barrier-free living at a more affordable price point for many, many families.”
One individual who appreciates Sable’s new mission on a personal level is Bri Keeshan, owner of a home that features a Freedom Foundation.
“Having a home that is designed to meet my needs impacts my daily life in many ways,” Keeshan said. “Ever since my car accident in 2009, all I've ever wanted was to live ‘normally,’ and win my freedom back. Although things aren't exactly the way they used to be, having this home has put me, and my life, in the right direction.”