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Home Design 2020: Meet Mark Zdrojewski, a leader in the practice of Universal Design

Strobel Design Build’s Mark Zdrojewski at the Morgan cottage in St. Petersburg. All photos courtesy Strobel Design Build.
Luxury Living Tampa Bay

 It’s almost as difficult to sum up Mark Zdrojewski as it is to pronounce his last name. 

(His father tells people the first syllable’s pronounced “Stroh,” like the beer, “with a jet ski behind it.”) 

Mark (he also goes by Mark Z) is a carpenter with a neuroscience degree. 

He’s been an Alzeheimer’s researcher and a Habitat for Humanity volunteer. He’s a licensed contractor and a lifelong pianist. 

And he’s the president of Strobel Design Build, where his unique mix of education and experience has made him arguably the area’s most qualified practitioner of Universal Design. The concept, rooted in the movement to promote accessibility for the disabled and the elderly, has grown to embrace design changes that can be helpful to everybody. 

“It’s about things you can do that are not only good for someone in a wheelchair,” says Mark Z, “but for someone bringing in groceries while wheeling a stroller.” 

To put it another way, Universal Design is about planning ahead — preparing your house now for upgrades later on. 

A case in point was a project in St. Petersburg’s Five Points neighborhood for Rebecca and Jay Morgan. Both are uncommonly well-versed in the issues of aging: Rebecca, 67, is professor of elder law at Stetson University, where she helped design the first elder-friendly courtroom, and Jay, 69, is the retired manager of the city’s Office of Aging. Three years ago they hired Strobel to build a fully accessible bungalow and garage directly adjacent to the nearly-century-old Florida cracker house where they’ve lived since 1987. Unlike that two-story home, the new structure is all on one level and fully outfitted for its residents to age safely in place — so that, when the couple decide they can’t navigate stairs anymore, they can move into the bungalow, which they call “the cottage,” and hire a caretaker to live in the main house. 

The main house and the new cottage, connected by a porte-cochère and complementary design details.

The cottage is full of common-sense features. It’s sited on a slope, so there are no steps leading up to it.

No steps from the porch.

All the doorways are 36 inches wide.

Kitchen cabinet doors are constructed so that a wheelchair can roll up close to the countertop.

There’s wood behind the walls of the shower to allow for easy installation of a grab bar, and bathroom tiles are arranged in contrasting colors to be more visible, especially at night.

The master bedroom has enough electrical outlets to accommodate a hospital bed if necessary, and the whole house is wired for telehealth.

The project also entailed shifting the entire property to net-zero energy consumption and making sure that architectural details of the new structure were in tune with the older home and the Craftsman styles of the neighborhood.

It was so successful that it won Strobel a Contractor of the Year Award from the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, and it’s already been resident-tested. Rated to withstand a Cat 3 storm, it housed 10 people and seven animals over the course of a week during Hurricane Irma. 

Zdrojewski, 40, traces his interest in caring for the elderly to his teens, when he saw first-hand the complications of his grandmother’s Alzheimers. She was living with him and his family at the time, and his father, a contractor, made improvements to the home to make it safer for her. 

Mark Z completed a BA in biology and psychology at SUNY Buffalo, working part-time as a carpenter using skills he’d learned from working with his father. He put that building knowhow to use when he moved to Florida in 2006, where he got his contractor’s license in 2008 and started his own company. But that went “belly up” (his words) a few years later, so, at the age of 30, he embarked on a new path: he enrolled in the Master’s program in aging and neuroscience at USF College of Medicine. 

It was his dual interest in home-building and senior populations that brought him into contact with Strobel Design Build founder Don Strobel. 

A leader in the remodeling industry with a strong belief in giving back to the community, Strobel was a founding board member of Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay, an affiliate of a national charitable organization that specializes in home repairs for people with disabilities and low income. In 2012, Zdrojewski joined RTTB as a volunteer, his status as a licensed contractor enabling him to act as the non-profit’s primary qualifier on its building projects. It wasn’t long before Strobel asked him to join Strobel Design Build as vice president. 

“We had common interests in helping people,” says Zdrojewski, who’s in his sixth year on the board of directors of Habitat for Humanity Hillsborough and is now in his second stint as chairman. Strobel, he says, “always had it in his heart to find someone who could carry on the legacy.” 

Mark Z bought Strobel Design Build in the fall of 2019, with its founder staying on a year to help with transition. “He and I are still very close,” says Mark. The 37-year-old business has grown from $2 million and a staff of four in 2014 to $8 million and a staff of 22, including designers, estimators and project managers. Though the company does do new construction, 75 percent of its work is remodeling and renovation, along with a small amount of specialty commercial work — including a recording studio in the Warehouse Arts District for the guitar-teaching app TrueFire. 

The music connection was especially appealing to Mark Z. A big fan of the Florida Orchestra, he has played piano since he was 8 years old and almost attended SUNY’s Fredonia College of Music until he decided he was better off sticking to piano as a hobby. But he still plays every day — he has a Yamaha upright in his downtown St. Pete apartment, where he lives with his dog, a Siberian husky/ Aussie/Rotweiler mix named Biscuit. 

Does his apartment conform with Universal Design principles, I wondered? 

“Well, it’s in a high-rise, so we do have an elevator,” he answered with a laugh. “I’m waiting to build my dream home when I find the right piece of real estate.” 

Meanwhile, his parents are reaching retirement age, so he’s helping them remodel their home in Cocoa Beach. 

It will definitely be universal-compliant. 

The above story is in the Fall 2020 issue of duPont Registry Tampa Bay. Hard copies are due to be showing up in fine mailboxes near you any day now, but meanwhile, enjoy the digital edition.

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