Sam Davis, who designed this assisted-care project in San Francisco, prefers to spend more money up front on low-maintenance materials.
Russell Abraham Sam Davis, who designed this assisted-care project in San Francisco, prefers to spend more money up front on low-maintenance materials.

Residential architects know only too well the challenges that arise when designing a custom home for a demanding client. Architects who toil in the realm of special-needs multifamily housing, however, face a different set of obstacles and obligations. Instead of satisfying the needs of just one client, the design pro must meet the severe budgetary constraints of the hiring organization as well as the highly individual needs of multiple future residents. “It's [certainly] easier to meet a client's needs when they can afford it,” says architect Kathy Dorgan, principal of Dorgan Architecture and Planning in Storrs, Conn.

In addition to satisfying conservative clients and antagonistic NIMBYs, these architects must design buildings that support greater independence for the physically challenged, environments that brighten the spirits of children with AIDS, and spaces that help reintegrate homeless citizens into society. Good architecture is essential, but careful product details and durable material selections play vital roles in making this type of housing feel special for everyone who dwells there.

less for more “There are certain requirements the hiring agency will have,” says New York City architect Beth Cooper Lawrence, who has been designing affordable and special-needs housing in the New York metropolitan area since 1979. “Knowing the potential occupants is also a key factor.” The more specifically a project meets the needs of its residents, the more creativity and architectural ingenuity it can show. Everything, however, is dictated by dollars.

“Price is usually the first consideration for me,” says Cooper Lawrence, whose portfolio includes housing for the homeless and mentally ill. “I spend less in the rooms and more in the common spaces, where wear and aesthetics are a concern.” Some of the specs she favors for lobbies and hallways are durable, heavy vinyl wall coverings and laminate flooring, which doesn't fade and is easily replaced when damaged. She also likes commercial-grade vinyl floor tile for public spaces and long-wearing vinyl composite tile for the private rooms.

Side-hinged wall ovens, says architect James E. Andrews, provide easy and comfortable access from wheelchairs.
Frigidaire Side-hinged wall ovens, says architect James E. Andrews, provide easy and comfortable access from wheelchairs.

James E. Andrews, AIA, is a strong believer in going to the source for both inspiration and design rigor. “I try to understand the particular needs and requirements of the group that will live in the residences,” says the principal of Andrews Architects in Portland, Ore. Field work is his study tool. “If you have a population of that group in your area, make a visit and look at what they do, see how they live, and ask questions,” he says. First-hand knowledge gives him the insight he needs when it comes time to detail the project and select materials. “It's your best chance for a winning project.”

Some of Andrews' solutions are fairly straightforward. For instance, when designing kitchen facilities for residents in wheelchairs he'll choose wall ovens with side-hinged doors and pull-out bread boards directly underneath. “The side hinges give them easier access, and they can use the board for hot items.” Other projects require greater depth of research and understanding of the disability. “One project I did for brain injured residents had doorless closets and cabinets,” he explains. “They don't remember where things are, so having everything open helps with memory.”

true colors Color is a simple yet powerful tool in architecture, and it's even more important to people with special needs. For them, it can help or harm, depending on how and where it's applied. Used with discernment, it can provide essential assistance in orientation and differentiation to the elderly and the vision-impaired, or it can lead them dangerously astray.

That's why architect Kathy Dorgan is vigilant in selecting and placing color. Color changes on the floor, near steps, and in hallways require particular precision. “I am careful not to do a dark border on the front of steps because it makes the elderly think there is a void to step down,” she says. Cooper Lawrence concurs, “For the elderly, color is a big deal. It shouldn't be too bright or too dark.”

Other groups, such as children with AIDS or cancer, are encouraged by bright, cheerful colors. Some organizations believe that certain colors can affect the moods of individuals undergoing rehabilitation for substance abuse and those with mental disability. While not everyone believes in such a direct, specific link between color and behavior, no one disputes that natural light is a significant mood enhancer. “Light is important for all people, but it might be more important for people who are stuck indoors,” says Andrews. As a result, creating light-filled interior spaces is among the most important goals for architects doing supportive housing.