UIU senior project leads to new venture with barrier-free house


Nearly seven years ago, Matt Thums was gearing up for bowhunting season in central Wisconsin. It was mid-September and he had climbed 15 feet in the air to his tree stand when the platform gave way and he plummeted to the ground. Doctors delivered some devastating news to Thums – he was now a T-7 paraplegic. He spent the next six months in a hospital recovering from injuries sustained in the fall.

Thums, who was a carpenter foreman on a bridge construction crew, needed a career that would fit his new lifestyle. He went on to college and earned his associate’s degree in accounting in 2008. He then spent the following year looking for a job. Thums realized quickly that he would be more marketable if he had a bachelor’s degree. A friend, who had just begun classes at Upper Iowa University-Wausau Center, recommended Thums check UIU out.

Thums immediately liked the schedule. He was able to work during the day, and take classes at Upper Iowa at night. In two years and one month, he graduated from UIU with his bachelor’s degree in accounting.

During his college career, Thums changed jobs from a local credit union to Main Street Homes in Wausau, Wis., where he is currently in charge of the company’s accounting department including project estimation and bidding for projects.

In his last year at Upper Iowa, Thums took the senior project course, which is designed to help a student analyze a real-life workplace issue, work through it and provide a solution to benefit the company as a whole. Thums developed a project that will have a positive impact on the lives of people like him who desire a home that is barrier free.

Thums and his fiancée, Betsy Dollard, had been searching for a home in the area that was barrier free to accommodate his wheelchair and allow him to live an independent life. Thums and Dollard became frustrated, especially when they saw homes that were labeled handicap accessible, but were ultimately not.

“I decided to put together my senior project as an opportunity statement,” said Thums. “Since we (Main Street Homes) build houses, I developed a plan to build truly accessible housing.”

Thums’ senior project detailed exactly what makes a barrier free home accessible to those of various abilities. Thresholds need to be flush with the floor, doorways and hallways need to be at least 36 inches wide and bathrooms require at least a five foot turning radius for wheelchairs.  Points of support in the walls have to be installed so that handles can be placed as needed. Roll-in showers are a must, as well as lower countertop heights in bathrooms and the kitchen.

Main Street Homes owner, Heath Tappe, was glad to put Thums’ project into practice,  and the company built its first barrier-free home this past summer.

Thums hopes to continue making more barrier free homes available, and he credits Upper Iowa University with providing him the opportunity to make a significant difference in the lives of others.

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