the feel-good factor
Given all the pressure points special-needs housing hits—testy community relations, difficult design questions, and undernourished budgets—why do architects get involved? It's not for the money. Although different firms report varying financial rewards, the conventional wisdom is that no one gets rich designing affordable housing, special-needs or otherwise. “It's not that it's not a decent fee,” says Langley. “But the reality is there's less money available for everyone.” Los Angeles architect Michael Lehrer, FAIA, realizes the intangible pluses of his work on two projects for SRO residents, the Downtown Drop-In Center and the James M. Wood Community Center. “Both were major money-losers,” he says bluntly. “But we got a lot of recognition for them. You say, okay, well, there's $100,000 into marketing for that year. Those are two of the most important projects in my repertoire. Our own mania for them reinforced the mania we have for other projects.”
Rob Steinberg, FAIA, of San Jose, Calif., says fees on his special-needs projects don't differ dramatically from the fees he gets for market-rate multifamily work. For him, though, the advantage of special-needs comes from its extreme focus on the end user. “When a designer looks at market-rate multifamily housing, the parameters are often set out in geometrical and numerical terms,” he says. “It's possible to get lost in all that and lose sight of the user. That's where special-needs housing provides a very valuable lesson.” Most of the architects who do it enjoy the challenge of designing for very specific populations. And it underlines for them the transformative power of their chosen profession—their ability to drastically improve people's daily lives. “Architects can be advocates,” says Louise Braverman of her experience at Chelsea Court. “I'd do it again in a heartbeat.”
spotlight:rob wellington quigley, faia: sro pioneer
The single-room occupancy hotel as a building type always intrigued Rob Quigley, FAIA. “Every city needs transitional housing,” he says. But in the mid-1980s, the trend was to tear down existing SROs, not build new ones. So when a bold young developer approached him around that time to design a new SRO for downtown San Diego, Quigley pounced on the opportunity. “San Diego's urban core was being revitalized, and it was tearing down the old ‘fleabag' hotels,” he recalls. “My client, Chris Mortenson, had bought one of these. He went into the building and saw it was this wonderful communal environment, and had the courage to propose building a brand-new SRO. It needed variances because the building codes were set up for either residential or hotels, not both. A city planner here, Mike Stepner, shepherded this thing through—it had to have a champion, or it wouldn't have gotten built.”
Rob Wellington Quigley, FAIA
The resulting, award-winning building, finished in 1987 and known as the Baltic Inn, showed communities across the country that the much-maligned SRO could fill vital urban affordable housing needs. Quigley went on to design several more during the 1990s in San Diego, Phoenix, Palo Alto, Calif., and Las Vegas, mostly for-profit ventures such as the Baltic Inn. “This is workforce housing,” he says. “It's for cooks, bartenders, cab drivers, nurses' helpers.” He used bright color schemes and careful space planning to make up for small room sizes and add visual appeal, and he did post-occupancy surveys to see how he could better serve residents. The strategy worked so well at one 1991 project, La Pensione in San Diego's Little Italy, that the owners turned it into a boutique hotel.
SROs still make up part of the 14-person firm's workload. For a nonprofit project it's currently designing, which includes an SRO component, it teamed with Stanford students to research the needs and desires of the community's future occupants. That's typical Quigley—even though he pioneered the modern-day SRO, he hasn't stopped looking for ways to improve it.
spotlighterick mikiten, aia: the insider
Architects designing special-needs housing work hard to understand their clients' particular situations. But Erick Mikiten, AIA, has something most don't: a lifetime of experience using a wheelchair. He puts his first-hand knowledge of living with a disability to good use, designing beautiful multifamily housing that also happens to be eminently accessible.
In addition to his architecture, the Berkeley-based Mikiten has written tour guides for wheelchair users and consulted on accessibility for public and private clients. Not surprisingly, he's formed strong views about the general state of universal design. He worries about the tendency to create environments that are adaptable, but not necessarily universal. “If you have a removable cabinet under a countertop, the manager of your building has to come and change it for you,” he says. “I hear of this happening a lot. Another example is not putting in grab bars unless the resident asks for them. This puts the onus on the person with the disability to make a special request. It goes against the spirit of the ADA, which is that people should feel like they can operate as a ‘regular' person.” He recommends items occupants can change themselves, like cabinets on rolling casters and adjustable-height counters.
Credit: Mikiten Architecture
Erick Miketen, AIA
Mikiten also feels sustainable design is an integral part of special-needs housing. Not just because of the long-term cost savings provided by energy-efficient systems and durable materials, though he does take those into account. “For me the main issue is healthy environments,” he says. “People who live in affordable housing tend to spend more time in the units than others, and special-needs people more than other affordable housing residents. They're less likely to open windows and get fresh air, and more likely to have environmental sensitivities—especially people with developmental disabilities.” He specifies no- or low-VOC materials and finishes whenever possible.
His cleverest innovations apply to mundane, everyday tasks, like throwing away a trash bag. At three recent projects, his firm designed a ramp leading up to a raised platform next to the backyard Dumpster so residents in wheelchairs can easily dispose of their garbage. “The simple things of daily living are often the biggest challenges,” he says.
spotlightbarbara winslow: voice of experience
Berkeley, Calif., architect Barbara Winslow practiced as a social worker before becoming an architect. So for her, using design to meet residents' psychological as well as physical needs comes naturally. “I've always been interested in the impact of places on how people experience them,” she says. “Special-needs is at the extreme end of that.” In addition to co-authoring the book Design for Independent Living with Ray Lifchez in 1979, Winslow has designed many special-needs housing projects as a partner at Jacobson Silverstein Winslow/Degenhardt Architects.
Her background and experience inform her perceptive views on such topics as creating calming environments for the mentally ill. “They need to be in a supportive, secure situation that offers a sense of reprieve,” she says. “We try to create a psychological home. There's a fireplace in the living room and window seats or bay windows. We try to make zones on the fringe of activity, nooks so people can have different degrees of social involvement. It lets them observe and control their entry into a situation.” Over the years she's learned that gardens and well-landscaped outdoor spaces have a healing effect on those with physical and mental ailments. And at housing for residents with AIDS, she feels that a balance of private bedrooms and baths and communal kitchens and living spaces usually works best. “It means people are not isolated from one another,” she says. “You know there are other people there if you need them.”
For the physically disabled, Winslow likes to incorporate easily adaptable or universally appealing features. “There are some simple things, like making windows low enough so people in a wheelchair can see outside,” she says. “Lever door handles are probably easier for everyone. A wider hall for a wheelchair can be used later for something else, like bookcases or storage.” In addition to overseeing most of JSW/D's special-needs housing, Winslow also applies her expertise to custom homes for private clients with disabilities.
architect web sites
Web sites for the architects mentioned in this article.
Winter & Company
Louise Braverman, Architect