Last week, Ariel Schwartz over at Co.Exist published a fantastic piece on Sweetwater Spectrum, a privately funded $9 million development in the heart of downtown Sonoma, Calif., that’s the first housing project in the nation dedicated to providing autistic young adults with “an environment typically not available to them — a place where they have a sense of community and belonging.”

Reading about this remarkable net-zero energy residential community where the motto is "Life with Purpose," I was struck how San Francisco-based firm Leddy Maytum Stacy (LMS) Architects incorporated both sustainability and careful, resident-sensitive design into one beautiful-looking package.

To be clear, Sweetwater Spectrum is not a treatment facility for autistic adults ages 18 and over. Deirdre Sheerin, executive director of the 3-year-old nonprofit organization of the same name formed by a group of parents seeking to provide safe independent housing options to autistic adults, explains to Sonoma News: “We’re not a program, we’re not responsible for their care. In a lot of ways, we’re their landlord. It’s very similar to some models of very high-quality elderly communities.”

Spread over three acres, Sweetwater Spectrum’s pilot community is composed of a quartet of 3,250-square-foot houses. Each house is outfitted with four private bedrooms and bathrooms, a living room, and shared kitchen. Four of the community’s 16 residents will reside in each home. Communal features include a therapy pool and hot tub, greenhouse, and a 2,300-square-foot activity center complete with a gym, art and music room, and a teaching kitchen with a canning/jamming area. There’s also a full 1.25-acre organic farm and orchard that not only provides fresh fruit and veggies to the residents but is also used to grow produce that's sold to local restaurants as a means of bringing in additional revenue.

“Part of the strategy we used was to always provide a variety of spaces ranging from public, semi-public, to private. There are opportunities for people to preview an activity or get away, take a break. There are places for people to be able to engage with other community members in a way that’s appropriate for them,” Marsha Maytum of LMS Architects explains to Co.Exist.

A firm that focuses heavily on sustainability, affordability, and special needs, previous LMS projects of note include the San Francisco headquarters of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Thoreau Center for Sustainability at the Presidio, and Merritt Crossing, an affordable housing development in Oakland that Lloyd Alter of sister site TreeHugger singles out as fitting the real definition of the green home.

Designed to LEED Gold standards, the homes and community structures at Sweetwater Spectrum were constructed using durable, low-VOC building materials and finishes and feature radiant cooling and heating systems. To keep energy bills at a bare minimum, the buildings are also are topped with photovoltaic arrays and solar thermal collectors. In fact, the community, which broke ground in September 2011 and opened late last year, is a pilot project for the PG&E Net Zero Energy Pilot Program.

The design of the Sweetwater Spectrum revolves around a University of Arizona study titled “Advancing Full Spectrum Housing: Designing for Adults with Autism Syndrome Disorders” that details the optimum living environment for autistic individuals who are sensitive to sound, light, smell and color. Sheerin explains to Sonoma News: “We want to use an autistic-sensitive lens when looking at everything. Everything has been considered … How the space is laid out. Where the windows are located. Even the HVAC system was selected based on these sensitivities.”

In terms of the HVAC systems, Co.Exist notes that while the architectural team would normally incorporate ceiling fans to promote natural ventilation, the very nature of ceiling fans — the sounds that they produce and the visual patterns that they create — could prove to be disruptive to residents. Instead, a low-velocity air ventilation system was installed in the buildings.

Despite the steep cost of living at Sweetwater Spectrum ($650 in monthly rent plus a monthly community fee of $2,600 with four of five residents eligible for subsidies), response has been strong. The cost and logistics involved with personalized care are not included and, as mentioned, are the responsibility of the individual and/or their families.

Residents across the autism spectrum are welcome to apply.

“It’s a lot of money, but we also have very expensive state-of-the-art grounds and facilities that need to be kept up, and we want to be able to offer enrichment activities,” explains Sheerin to Co.Exist. Sheerin hopes that partnerships with local organizations will lead to said enrichment activities at and outside of Sweetwater Spectrum. “We’re very collaborative. I want to continue to partner with our neighbors, our community,” Sheerin tells Sonoma News. “We want to help someone live as independently as possible, with choices, with dignity, so they can live a life of purpose.”

In terms of independent living, Sweetwater Spectrum couldn’t be in a better spot. With a Walk Score of 82, it’s located just four short blocks from Sonoma’s town square and one block from the town’s bike path.

Currently, about 85 percent of Americans living with autism spectrum disorder are under the age of 22.

Lots more info on this groundbreaking — and designed to be replicable — housing model over at the Sweetwater Spectrum website. You can also donate directly to the organization, enabling it to continue the mission of providing autistic adults with "an innovative, supportive residential community that will challenge each individual to reach his or her highest potential." On the design front, Eco-Structure also published an insightful article in 2012 on how LMS Architects went about successfully marrying universal design with sustainable building methods for the project.

Via [Co.Exist], [Sonoma News]

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

In Sonoma, a green community that's free of sensory overloads
At the first residential community in the nation for autistic adults, sustainable and autism-specific design merge with beautiful results.