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2015 AIA COTE TOP TEN: Sweetwater Spectrum Community

Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects

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dmadsen, hanley wood, llc

Project Name

2015 AIA COTE TOP TEN: Sweetwater Spectrum Community

Project Status



16,315 sq. feet

Construction Cost


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Project Description


Created to address the growing national housing crisis for adults with autism, this community in Sonoma, California integrates autism spectrum-specific design, Universal Design and Sustainable Design strategies. A highly insulated exterior envelope, radiant heating/cooling, high-performance glazing, natural ventilation and daylighting all contribute to help minimize energy use. Sloped roofs maximize solar access and support photovoltaic and solar hot water panels which offset this reduced energy load. The new community serves as an innovative, replicable model designed to address the full range of needs of individuals with autism spectrum disorders while maximizing residents’ development and independence so they can live life with purpose and dignity.


This is a thoughtfully designed and carefully detailed project. The agenda extends beyond the building to include food production on-site and a therapy pool, as well as other services for autistic adults. The emphasis on sustainable passive strategies, including 100% natural ventilation and cooling, is very subtle and quietly done. The landscape design of the site focuses on stormwater treatment that manages 100% of the site's stormwater as well as a one-acre organic garden, orchard and greenhouse that provides both food and therapeutic value. The scale of building and site landscape keeps with the scale of the surrounding area, which is important in incorporating this type of facility into a residential neighborhood that had been slated for 14 new single-family homes. The indoor and outdoor spaces are seamlessly integrated. Half of the building's power is generated by the photovoltaic system, but the 51 KW solar electric system is designed to be expanded and make the building net-zero at a later date. Solar water heating also provides 85% of the domestic hot water and pool heating.


  • Estimated % of occupants using public transit/cycling/walking: 40%
  • Daylighting at levels that allow lights to be off before nightfall: 93%
  • Lighting power density (watts per square-foot): 0.72 watts/sf
  • Outdoor views: 100%
  • Reduction of regulated potable water: 33%
  • Total EUI (kBtu per square-foot per year): 33
  • Net EUI (kBtu per square-foot per year): 6
  • Percent Reduction from National Median EUI for Building Type: 88% 


Sweetwater Spectrum Community was conceived in response to a growing demand for autism-specific supportive housing, which has reached crisis levels. In 2009, a group of families, autism professionals and community leaders founded the nonprofit organization Sweetwater Spectrum to meet the extraordinary need for appropriate, high-quality, long-term housing for adults with autism, offering life with purpose and dignity for residents. Sweetwater Spectrum Community, created as a model project to be replicated nationwide, integrates autism specific design, universal design and sustainable design, and provides a permanent home for 16 adults with autism.

Spaces were designed to reduce sensory stimulation (ambient sound, visual patterns, odors, etc.) and to create a simple, predictable domestic environment. Safety and security are paramount and healthy, durable materials are utilized throughout. Individuals may customize their personal living spaces to accommodate their preferences and particular needs.

One of the most important design goals of Sweetwater Spectrum Community was to provide a safe environment for the residents. As some individuals with autism have behaviors that test the strength of their physical environment, including banging on walls or windows and slamming doors, enhanced durability was essential to protecting the residents. Houses feature industrial-grade doors and high-impact wall finishes, durable flooring including sheet linoleum and replaceable carpet tiles. Another common behavior for adults with autism is water play. All bathrooms have floor drains, tile floor and wall surfaces, and institutional-grade fixtures. The durable materials provide ease of maintenance and a secure environment.

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