In a city known for skyscrapers and tiny apartments, Diana Sanzone’s Brooklyn backyard is a rare treasure. But Diana couldn’t enjoy the muddy yard in her motorized wheelchair.
Her landscaper, Daniel S. Burnstein, wanted to create a natural-looking, affordable surface so that Diana could enjoy her yard once again. Gravel was his material of choice. But one thing had Daniel stumped: how could he ensure that the gravel surface was wheelchair accessible?
Daniel turned to Washington Rock Quarries for advice. With the help of industry experts, Washington Rock made a guide for creating a wheelchair-accessible gravel surface. Then we teamed up with Daniel and Vermont-based gravel supplier North East Materials Group to adapt those guidelines to Diana’s yard.
Watch our full project video below.
Developing Guidelines for Wheelchair-Accessible Gravel Surfaces
Washington Rock asked landscape architect Clayton Beaudoin for advice about how to create wheelchair-accessible gravel surfaces. Clayton, a principal architect at SiteWorkshop, has worked on many public works projects that must meet accessibility standards.
Clayton directed us to accessibility standards and shared a crushed surfacing model that SiteWorkshop has used to create accessible spaces. We used these resources to create a guide called “8 Guidelines for Developing a Wheelchair-Accessible Gravel Surface,” available here.
We started the Brooklyn project with the first guideline, which is to choose between two construction methods. We chose the “Light Method,” which requires excavating three inches of material and backfilling with three inches of gravel.
Designing a Space for Diana
After choosing a construction method, we needed a design. That would help us determine how much material we needed.
Daniel took measurements of the yard and photographed the yard for reference.
We used this information to create a scaled model of Diana’s yard with SketchUp. Then we collaborated with Daniel to mock up a few wheelchair-friendly designs.
Diana ultimately chose a design that incorporated green spaces into the yard but gave her plenty of room to turn in her wheelchair.
Finding the Right Gravel: North East Materials Group
Based on our design, we needed about 4.5 cubic yards of gravel. We factored in a 15% contingency, which brought our total to about 5.25 cubic yards of gravel.
We decided to use a slightly larger gravel size than recommended: ½” minus. It was easier to source and more inexpensive than ¼” minus. According to Clayton, this size is a viable substitute, but one risk to using a larger size is that pieces of gravel that “float” to the top of the gravel surface will be bigger. This “could create issues with certain chairs,” Clayton explained. We decided to take the risk, but the risk may not pan out for other projects.
We teamed up with our sister company, North East Materials Group in Vermont, to ship their ½” minus crushed granite to New York City.
North East Materials creates gravel products by crushing reclaimed granite slabs. It was a perfect match with Daniel’s sustainable gardening practices. He regularly uses reclaimed materials in his work, such as boulders from construction sites or recycled concrete slabs.
Evaluating Equipment Needs
We made a list of equipment needed for the project, including a skidsteer that would fit through the 5-foot-wide alley leading into Diana’s backyard.
Our full equipment list included the following items:
- Bobcat S70 skidsteer with loader bucket attachment
- 200 lb. plate tamper
- 5.25 cubic yards of ½” minus (≈210 fifty-pound bags)
- measuring tape
- marking chalk
- square-point shovels
- hand tamper
- hose with spray attachment
Of course, we also needed an equipment operator and hands to help.
In addition to producing and bagging the gravel, North East Materials offered us the help of their crew members Joe Dimick and Mark Salls. Washington Rock’s founder, Harry Hart, who has a background in site development and equipment operation, offered his help as well.
Flipping Diana’s Yard
On a May morning, team members from Washington Rock and North East Materials met Daniel at Diana’s house and got to work.
After measuring and marking the border of the path design, excavation began. Using square-point shovels, crew members manually cut around the design outline. The goal was to get a clean outline and avoid damaging concrete or brickwork with heavy machinery.
Harry finished excavating the project area with the skidsteer. Then he and Joe used the plate compactor to compact the soil into a firm, level surface.
Crew members hauled all 210 bags of gravel—over 10,000 pounds of material—from the street to the backyard. The bags were emptied throughout the project area, then the gravel was leveled using rakes and shovels.
Water was lightly sprayed on the surface of the gravel, then Harry pushed the compactor back and forth over the entire surface of the gravel area several times.
Crew members adjusted the transitions between paved and gravel surfaces by adding more gravel and hand tamping it to avoid breaking the concrete with heavy machinery.
Once the surface could be walked on without indenting easily, the project was complete.
To enhance the gravel, concrete and brickwork were pressure washed the next day while Daniel added landscaping elements.
Diana’s First Look
The transition between the brick alleyway and gravel was smooth. Diana easily drove up to the edge of the garden beds. She looked admiringly at the plants and listened to the birds.
“This is so exciting,” Diana said. “When I see the results, access, and the way things have been designed, it’s just beautiful.”
Diana moved into her Brooklyn home nearly 30 years ago. Even then, the yard was muddy, but she was able to get around.
Over time, Diana lost mobility due to CIDP (Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy). This autoimmune disorder damages the nerves, which can cause muscles to weaken.
Eventually Diana switched from a scooter to a wheelchair to get around outdoors more easily. Trips to the backyard often left her wheelchair wheels caked in mud.
Diana couldn’t believe how much the yard had changed over a few days. She loved that she could pick produce to eat. She also appreciated the green spaces that Daniel developed so that the backyard still felt vibrant and lively.
Diana’s hope for this project is that others can draw inspiration from it.
“Every person who’s disabled has different needs,” she explained. “If someone who’s disabled can see this, they can adapt [it to] their own purposes. And that will help people have a more enriched life.”
For Diana, an accessible yard increases her sense of independence.
“It’s a big thing to feel more independent,” she said.
To complement the gravel paths, Daniel added interesting elements to the backyard design: an “N” that he keyed into the gravel to represent North, artwork, a reclaimed concrete slab under the cherry tree where he placed a bench, and small reclaimed boulders lining the path.
“This is my style of gardening: to use found materials, on-site materials, natural materials—stuff that’s just sitting there for the taking,” Daniel explained. “And it’s so beautiful.”
The excavated grass and soil were piled behind the cherry tree to create a berm. It became a new planting feature.
The resulting landscape is both artistic and accessible.
“I really feel like I could actually walk away from this project having done everything I wanted to do,” Daniel said. “But the exciting part is that now we’ve got new planting beds and more to come.”
1 Year Later
In the months after the project, Daniel added art and plants. A friend painted a compass on the patio to cover up a paint splatter.
Daniel planted the composted berm with butternut squash, strawberries, herbs, and greens. He also added a rose bush, cardoon, and pollinator-friendly plants like anise hyssop and butterfly milkweed.
In the first six months after the project, the gravel surface remained firm and reliable. Even with heavy rainfall, “the gravel did not need to be altered, and it drain[ed] perfectly,” Daniel said.
Over one year later, Daniel reported that “the surface is holding up well.” He now works outside the city. Based on his most recent visits, he feels that “even with long neglect, the yard can be rejuvenated just with weeding.”
A special thanks to the many people who made this project a success:
- Daniel S. Burnstein (aka Limb Hacks on social media), who introduced us to this project and helped organize and execute it;
- Diana Sanzone and Eddie Negron, who allowed us to renovate their backyard and gave us valuable feedback;
- Clayton Beaudoin, for providing the foundational knowledge for this project;
- North East Materials Group and team members Eric Morton, Joe Dimick, and Mark Salls for providing the time, equipment, materials, and labor for this project;
- Harry Hart, for offering site development consultation and for operating the heavy machinery; and
- Beth Hart, for providing project and editing assistance.
To learn more about wheelchair accessibility, check out our article, “How Do I make a Gravel Surface Wheelchair Accessible?”
Check out North East Materials Group and their products on their website.
Learn more about Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (CIDP) on the GBS/CIDP Foundation International website.
This article was originally published on November 22, 2021, and was republished on July 27, 2022. The original yard renovation took place in May 2021.