Imagine designing a home for a client who may be deaf, blind, or mobility-impaired—you're not sure which. The residence has to fit into a tiny space, say 250 square feet, and must be easy to duplicate 10, 50, or 100 times over. Before the permitting process even starts, you know the project will elicit passionate community opposition. You might have to rely on an intermediary to communicate the client's preferences, and you'll need to search out durable, long-lasting materials that require little maintenance. Oh, and the budget is infinitesimal.

Welcome to the world of special-needs housing. A subset of standard affordable housing, special-needs encompasses users including the physically or mentally disabled, the homeless, battered women, recovering drug addicts or alcoholics, and people with HIV or AIDS. Some of these categories overlap; the homeless, for example, are three times more likely than other people to contract HIV. Many special-needs communities are designated for just one user type, while others, like those funded by HUD's Section 811 program, must accommodate multiple needs in each unit. The housing can be permanent or transitional, scattered-site or in one location, for single people or families, strictly residential or mixed-use. When a special-needs project also provides services such as counseling or medical care, it becomes known as supportive housing.

sensitive side The architects designing special-needs housing are as varied a bunch as the residents themselves. Well-known California firms such as Pytaok Architects, Studio E Architects, and David Baker + Partners came to it from doing straight-up affordable housing. Seniors housing represents another closely related field, because elderly residents often suffer from physical or cognitive impairments. Some practitioners have more of a healthcare background, including New York City architect Roberta Washington, AIA, who specialized in hospitals before designing several supportive housing projects. And others arrive at special-needs through their own personal situations. Erick Mikiten, AIA, of Berkeley, Calif., can relate to the physical and emotional needs of wheelchair users particularly well, because he's one himself. “A lot of the things I've learned are through seeing my own experience,” he says. “Like washing dishes and having the water dripping down my arm because the sink is too high.”

Whatever the firm's history, designing special-needs housing challenges its empathy for future residents. Often they're moving from an unstable or inhospitable living environment, and subtle design nuances can have a major impact on their well-being. Berkeley firm Jacobson Silverstein Winslow/Degenhardt incorporates porches and terraces for smokers into its housing for the mentally ill. “Smoking tends to be a big thing among the mentally disturbed,” says partner Barbara Winslow. “It's a way of containing the pressure for a lot of people.” John Dickinson, AIA, a deaf architect based in Boulder, Colo., emphasizes sightlines in his housing for the hearing impaired, in addition to the more typical lighting and vibrations that tell residents when a phone, doorbell, or alarm is ringing. “The housing is more open and airy than usual,” he says. “There are no columns that will block the visual aesthetics.” And at Inglis Gardens, housing for physically disabled adults in Philadelphia, architect Nancy Bastian of Cecil Baker & Associates added angled mirrors above all the cooktops so residents can see into pots on the stove.

Even basic, universally desirable features such as natural light, fresh air, and places to socialize take on new shades of meaning with special-needs residents, who tend to spend more time at home than the average person. Light and air combat the depression that often accompanies illness and homelessness. Welcoming public spaces give those who are down on their luck the opportunity to meet others who have been through similar experiences. “The social aim is to create places where people can develop relationships,” says Richard Harris, executive director of Central City Concern in Portland, Ore., which owns and manages housing for recovering addicts and other special-needs populations. “In a recovery, one of the main things is getting rid of the bad friends and getting hooked up with solid people who will help you.”

money talks The list of clever, effective design elements architects have created for special-needs projects goes on and on. But, as with all affordable housing, the specter of a tight budget constantly looms. In order to eke out money for such worthwhile extras as well-landscaped courtyards or comfortable common room furniture, architects must think of ways to conserve funds somewhere else.

And they do. “Every dollar does count, but that doesn't mean you can't do certain things,” says Dennis Langley, AIA, of Weese Langley Weese in Chicago. “You try to make a very efficient plan, and you use a lot of color and texture.” His firm often varies the colors of brick on their buildings to provide architectural detail without adding cost. At the Lyon Building, a widely admired renovation in Seattle for homeless people with HIV/AIDS and other health problems, locally based architects MITHUN made the most of the existing building. “Under layers of carpet we found beautiful mosaic and hardwood floors,” says Leslie Moldow, AIA, a principal at MITHUN. “They're very durable, and we didn't have to go to institutional vinyl.” For the award-winning SRO Chelsea Court in New York City, architect Louise Braverman, AIA, took the initiative, driving to Costco to find folding tables for each unit and coaxing a friend to donate artwork.

The best special-needs architects don't just think about the immediate cost of the building. They also keep its long-term operating costs in mind, and the most innovative service providers in the country are doing likewise. If a nonprofit plans to spend the next century running a building, it's going to want passive solar design and daylighting that will minimize energy use—hardly a revelation to the firms in the trenches of special-needs housing. “We've been doing energy-efficient buildings for years,” says Langley. “Not because it's cool to be sustainable. We do it because it helps the long-term viability of the project.”

What is new, though, is developers' openness to more high-tech green options. Common Ground, a well-respected New York City–based nonprofit, recently commissioned a building by Kiss + Cathcart, a local firm experienced in green design rather than affordable housing. Slated to start construction next year or in 2007, the building will contain photovoltaic panels, a rainwater collection system, and possibly geothermal heat. An on-the-boards project in Chicago, designed by Murphy/Jahn for the nonprofit developer Lakefront Supportive Housing, features rooftop photovoltaics and wind turbines. “There's a growing interest in energy efficiency,” says Maureen Friar, executive director of the advocacy group Supportive Housing Network of New York. “People are spending more money up front to get better long-term operating costs.”

They're also spending money on high-quality materials that don't need to be replaced every five or 10 years. “Interestingly enough, the nonprofit environment is where people are most concerned about using long-lasting materials that will be low-maintenance,” says Cliff Boehmer, AIA, a principal at Mostue & Associates in Boston. “A lot of the market-rate developers, generally speaking, are less interested in making the investment upfront.” Special-needs communities take a lot of physical abuse, especially transitional housing, which faces frequent move-ins and move-outs. “Particularly in the common areas, you have to build really tough stuff,” says Harris. “We try to use a lot of stainless steel and Corian.” If a well-made floor tile or light fixture can go in at the beginning and hold up for decades, to many developers it's well worth the initial investment. And if it can stop a project from seeming institutional, so much the better. “You have to spend a little bit of money to make it feel like a home,” says Los Angeles seniors housing guru John Mutlow, FAIA, who's now designing his first special-needs project. “We use a real wood door, not veneer.”

changes afoot The special-needs category includes so many varied models and populations, it's hard to discern overall design trends. One apparent across-the-board development, though, is an increase in private kitchens and bathrooms. “The new SROs are calling for individual cooking facilities and baths,” says Perry Winston, architectural director of the New York City nonprofit Pratt Planning and Architectural Collaborative. “It promotes more stable living and less fighting over shared space.” Most communities still have a central kitchen, but even a two-burner stove in the units gives residents the option to cook or eat independently. “People seem to do better in a nicer unit,” says Dan Sawislak, executive director of Berkeley-based Resources for Community Development. “Problems seem to crop up more when people have smaller units, no private bath, no kitchen in the unit.”

Affordable housing developers have also grown more enthusiastic about combining uses and unit types. “There is a real interest in having a mix of general affordable and supportive housing,” says Carla Javits, executive director of the national community development resource Corporation for Supportive Housing. “Not necessarily market-rate too—the one place where you can think about doing that is in markets where the rents are very high. But certainly we're seeing mixed populations—families with singles, commercial with residential.” Mixed-use projects can generate rental income from retail or office space. They can also make skittish neighbors more accepting of special-needs housing. The award-winning Santa Monica, Calif., firm Pugh Scarpa Kodama recently averted a burgeoning conflict when it designed retail into the ground floor of a community for the mentally disabled. “People were concerned the residents were going to hang out in front of the building,” says principal Lawrence Scarpa, AIA. “But we put retail on the first floor and a big private courtyard garden on the second floor, so they'll have no reason to.”

Architects' abilities to diffuse such volatile situations rate just as highly with developers as their design skills do. “It's not just about drawing the pictures or making the design,” says Harris. “It's about being able to verbalize them to the community.” Special-needs veteran Pyatok Architects of Berkeley, Calif., and Seattle holds pre-design workshops with the community and, if possible, the building's future residents. “We use foam core models with nonstick glue so people can disassemble and reassemble them,” says Michael Pyatok, FAIA. “Sometimes we create teams—each team gets a modeling kit and a configuration of the site. They take the project requirements and come up with solutions. Then they present their models, and eventually we come to a consensus. You might do two or three of these workshops before you get a final site plan.” The process ensures the final product will be something both the users and the neighbors can embrace.