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Competition: ZeroThreshold

An open international ideas contest has been launched for aesthetically-pleasing accessible homes in Cleveland, Ohio (Deadline: 28 June)

The anonymous ZeroThreshold competition invites students and professionals to draw up innovative and ‘intentionally beautiful’ disabled-friendly dwellings for the Old Brooklyn neighbourhood of the historic city located on the southern shore of Lake Erie.

The call for concepts – organised by non-profit organisation North Coast Community Homes – aims to generate new prototypes which could be used to boost the wellbeing and life quality of disabled people both locally and across the world. Winners will be considered for construction in a later phase of the contest.

Old Brooklyn in Cleveland, Ohio

Old Brooklyn in Cleveland, Ohio

Old Brooklyn in Cleveland, Ohio

According to the brief: ‘The Zero Threshold design competition was inspired by (dis)ABLED Beauty, an exhibition at the Kent State University Museum in 2016-17. The exhibition presented beautifully designed prostheses, hearing aids, and mobility devices for people living with disabilities, (dis)ABLED Beauty aimed to change the negative stigma associated with disability by presenting fashion-forward adaptive devices that make a virtue of necessity.

‘Zero Threshold applies a similar approach to the design of accessible housing. Instead of making accessible features as functional and invisible as possible, this competition challenges designers to celebrate the aesthetics of accessibility. The competition encompasses new residential construction, accessory dwelling units, interior design and retrofit of existing housing, accessible public space and landscape design, and holistic urban design strategies aimed at eliminating physical and social barriers in urban neighbourhoods.’

Cleveland was a major manufacturing centre and at one point the United States’ sixth largest settlement with almost a million inhabitants but witnessed significant industrial decline in the mid-twentieth century is now home to around 385,000 residents.

Since the 1980s downtown commercial, retail and residential development helped stimulate an urban renaissance but the foreclosure crisis following the financial crash saw large numbers of homes abandoned and demolished leaving thousands of vacant municipally-owned lots.

Home sales in Cleveland

Home sales in Cleveland

Home sales in Cleveland

The latest project aims to stimulate investment and market demand in Old Brooklyn by delivering new aesthetically-pleasing and disabled-friendly housing types. Proposals may focus on a new build home, an ‘accessory’ dwelling detached from an existing home, a retrofit, community gathering place or an entire neighbourhood.

Submissions will be judged on their Accessibility, responsiveness, innovation, transferability and affordability. The overall winner will receive a $4,000 prize while a $1,000 new residential construction prize, $1,000 accessory dwelling prize, $2,000 retrofit prize, $1,000 community gathering place prize, a $1,000 neighbourhood-wide prize, and a $1,000 student prize will also be awarded.

How to apply


The registration and submission deadline is 28 June


Standard registration until 31 May: $200
Late registration from 1 to 28 June: $300
Submission: $100

Contact details


Visit the competition website for more information


Q&A with Jamie Van Doren

The chief marketing officer at North Coast Community Homes discusses his ambitions for the competition

Jamie Van Doren

Jamie Van Doren

Jamie Van Doren

Why are your holding an international contest for accessible and beautifully-designed new homes?

Unsurprisingly, as a non-profit that does housing for people with developmental and other disabilities we do a lot of customization and accessibility adaptations for the homes we own and manage. What we’ve seen are a lot of are, basically, functional solutions such as grab bars and other features that often look somewhat institutional. Personally, I’ve always had this sense that there has to be something better out there; something that doesn’t look so… stigmatizing.

We’ve seen this trend in beautiful, really interesting prosthetics, hearing aids and other devices. Some of these, like a 3D printed mesh leg or a feathered hearing aid – they’ve been just striking. Instead of trying to be invisible, these prosthetics almost invite you to comment on them and how attractive and unusual they are, the same way you might comment when you see someone with interesting, funky eyeglasses.

When you take a prosthetic and make it stand out, make it expressive, there’s a normalizing factor. It takes the attention away from ‘disability’ and refocuses us on the individual and the way they express a bit of who they are through their style. Our thinking has been – ‘why can’t we do that for accessible homes?’

Typical housing in Cleveland, Ohio

Typical housing in Cleveland, Ohio

Typical housing in Cleveland, Ohio

What is your vision for the innovative new accessible homes?

Having a design competition that focuses on this issue of innovative, aesthetic accessible housing does something really important. It gives us a chance to elevate the conversation around accessibility and challenge talented people from all over the world to push the boundaries. And everyone has a stake in this. There isn’t one place where someone with a disability doesn’t struggles to find housing that works for them. There’s not a town anywhere, where there isn’t someone who is getting older and wrestling with how they’ll stay in a home that isn’t safe anymore.

That’s one of the reasons we’ve built the competition around multiple housing typologies: new construction, renovation, accessory dwellings, shared neighbourhood spaces. These are places and opportunities that exist in real neighbourhoods across the US and in many international communities.

There’s a lot of things we’d like to accomplish through the ZeroThreshold design competition; everything from calling attention to the lack of accessible housing stock, to attending to this issue of how we preserve and invest in middle neighbourhoods (where there’s often higher senior populations), to reducing stigma around accessibility. But if I try to narrow it down… I think a lot of progress can be made on all of it if the designers can create somethings so innovative and attractive that someone without a disability looks at it and says ‘Wow! I love that. I want that in my home.’

Old Brooklyn in Cleveland, Ohio

Old Brooklyn in Cleveland, Ohio

Old Brooklyn in Cleveland, Ohio

What sort of architects and designers are you hoping will apply?

I know there are architects and designers out there who have a connection to accessibility – even if it isn’t the focus of their practice. I know this because there’s hardly anyone who isn’t impacted at least indirectly by accessibility concerns, whether because they have grandparents, ageing parents, or a sibling or other family member with a disability. So, I’m hoping people take a chance and participate, even if accessibility isn’t their area of expertise.

I would love to see competitors from big firms, as well as small emerging firms looking to expand their brand. I’d love to see independent architects, even interior designers tackling this issue of accessible housing. Of course, the competition is open to students as well, whether they’re participating as part of a class or taking on the challenge solo. I’m very excited to see what comes from the international community too. I think the diversity of participants and ideas is going to make the jurors’ job of picking winners very tough!

Ultimately, I think one big draw, besides how thought-provoking the idea is, is that we’re looking to implement one or two of the winning designs. This goes beyond concepting. We’re looking to bring some of these designs to life, and that means one or more competitors will be able to point to a built design that impacts the lives of real people in a powerful, meaningful way.

I get literal goosebumps when I think about this competition. How often do you get an opportunity to be a part of something like this?

Which other design opportunities are on the horizon and how will the architects/designers be procured?

This could be a competition we host every other year. In the more immediate future, post-competition, we’re looking to host a community exhibit as well as an awards event. If all goes well, we’ll have some great speakers and be providing a platform for the winners and maybe some runner-ups to share their thoughts on their designs and the topic as a whole. Then it’s on to the next phase, where we’ll hand-off to the neighbourhood we’ve selected as the target for the competition designs, Old Brooklyn in Cleveland, OH. That’s the ‘build phase.’

All of us involved, and there are a lot of important partners and talented people bringing this competition to life, all of us understand that this is new. We’re taking on something audacious. But if the architectural community, design professionals, universities and students join us on this – this competition will be game changing for housing, for accessibility, and, most importantly, for real people in real neighbourhoods potentially everywhere. I can’t wait to see that happen.