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For architects in general, there is perhaps no greater feeling of success than having the opportunity to give back to one’s community. For New Jersey architects in particular–where there exists a significant affordable housing crisis–there is no better time than the present to help design and create special needs housing–be it for seniors, the ambulatory challenged, those with psychiatric or developmental disabilities, people with AIDS and even hospice care.

While every special needs facility requires unique design elements and amenities to properly service the needs of its inhabitants, architects should take into account the following four fundamental elements: psychological, social, maintenance and economic design factors.

The first thing to consider when designing special needs housing is the psychological element, or creating a space that is appealing, interesting and provides residents with an enjoyable quality of life. Architects must design space that is motivating and positive to make sure that the home is still where a person with special needs feels comfortable and at ease. For example, windows, interesting angles and textures can be used to help create spaces that stimulate and encourage residents and do not take away from the functionality of the space.

Next, as individuals with special needs often live alone and feel isolated from social gatherings, architects need to factor in a social element to their design plans in order to create a space that fosters interaction among residents. To accomplish this, space must be created to promote communication between residents so that they may encounter each other on a more frequent basis. To start, architects should focus on the following three areas of a building: the entry door, mailbox area and laundry room. In addition, architects must be especially sensitive to color and the need for natural light. Increasing the effectiveness of both does not require the expenditure of large amounts of money, but rather an understanding of color’s power as a critical mood enhancer. No one palette should triumph, as color follows function. In interactive spaces, for example, colors should have intensity and be complemented by active patterns.

Finally, the last two factors are to combine durability with the best cost for the deal. Unlike most of us, who spend minimal time in our home, people with special needs spend a great deal of time in their homes and use the facilities more and with grater intensity. Therefore, when specifying materials to create visually stimulating patterns, colors and textures, architects must also carefully consider safety, hygiene and durability. Choosing materials that can be maintained with readily available, low-cost products is also key.

When designing a building, all architects look at both the large picture and the smaller pieces of a project–from the building’s design to the positioning of each window. For the architect who designs for individuals with special needs, even the issues that would otherwise be considered mundane are intensified by the challenges of meeting the extraordinary physical, psychological, visual and interaction needs of the inhabitants. With these types of projects, success is not only based on a creating a well-designed building on time and on budget, but also whether that building will enhance its residents’ quality of everyday life.

Barry Poskanzer, AIA, is principal and partner of Poskanzer Skott Architects in Ridgewood. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

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