• For the Contra Costa County adult shelter, Sam Davis used aluminum diamond plate, corrugated metal, and fiber cement panels to create lively yet durable interiors.

    Credit: Sam Davis Architecture

    For the Contra Costa County adult shelter, Sam Davis used aluminum diamond plate, corrugated metal, and fiber cement panels to create lively yet durable interiors.

illuminating choices

Dorgan is equally attentive to the artificial lighting she uses in special-needs projects. “A lot of people with AIDS or other [health problems] are often light-sensitive,” she says, and they do better with indirect lighting. “No one wants a view of a light bulb.” Even with groups who require more light, such as the elderly, indirect sources are often more effective and comfortable, she adds.

“[Specifying materials] for special-needs housing is not all that different from other types of housing,” says Berkeley, Calif.–based Sam Davis, architecture professor at the University of California, Berke-ley, and principal of Sam Davis Architecture. “It often comes down to cost and longevity of the materials.”

According to Davis, organizations are often more pinched on the back end of the project than on the front. Spending more money initially for longer-lasting and low-maintenance products may help them adhere to small operational budgets. “I try to spec materials that stand up to abuse or those that don't show it very easily,” says Davis, who also wrote Designing for the Homeless: Architecture That Works (University of Cali-fornia Press, 2004). For his Larkin Street Youth Services project in San Francisco, for example, he compromised with painted gypsum walls in the lobby. “If I had my druthers, I would have used something else,” he says, such as durable aluminum diamond plate or Hardiplank fiber cement panels.

This highly specialized category may share similarities with other housing types in some ways, but the successful architect is mindful of its greater obligations. “Do not just meet minimum code requirements,” Dorgan advises. “Understand the needs of the users by visiting other projects, but then go above what the requirements are.” The project will be even stronger from everyone's point of view, she promises.

Cooper Lawrence recommends a methodical, collaborative approach with the client. “There is a certain way to work with them,” she says. “You can't go into the project with a big ego, and you must understand that you are not working in a vacuum.”

Sam Davis agrees. Special-needs organizations are understandably careful with their money and their architecture, but there's plenty of room left for invention. “The clients are really interested in doing something interesting,” he says. “They don't want the usual.” Indeed, they want and deserve something special in every way.