Sonoma, California

Although large population trends, such as the skyrocketing number of seniors in the United States, grab a lot of attention, the nation is also on the cusp of a smaller demographic boom. Between 2000 and 2008 the rate of autism diagnoses increased dramatically, up from 1 in 150 children to 1 in 88. Over the next decade, about 500,000 children with autism will reach adulthood, with no clear path to managing their lives on their own. “There's not a solution for where they're going to live long-term when their families are no longer able to take care of them,” says Marsha Maytum, principal of Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects (LMS).

In 2009, a group of parents and autism professionals began working on this problem. They formed a nonprofit, Sweetwater Spectrum, and bought a 2.8-acre urban infill site just off the old town square in Sonoma, California. The board of directors brought on LMS to conceive a new housing model grounded in the latest research. In addition to specific requirements—such as a legible, repetition-based site layout and interiors that reduce sensory stimulation—the board and the design team started with the premise that adults with autism should have the opportunity for self-determination.

The Sweetwater Spectrum residential community, which opened in January, consists of four single-story, 3,250-square-foot homes with four single bedrooms each, as well as a community center with a gym and teaching kitchen, a therapy pool, a greenhouse, an orchard, and a small organic farm. With its homey, wood-frame structures clad in fiber-cement-board panels and accented in red cedar, the campus is not a hospital or even a social program: it is strictly housing. Sweetwater CEO Deirdre Sheerin likens the project to a retirement community with social activities. Residents still receive services—a few require round-the-clock supervision, for instance—but their families are the ones who coordinate their care, through state or private funding.

Autism is not a single disorder. But many on the spectrum share characteristics, such as a need for predictability and trouble with social interaction. LMS addressed these concerns by organizing the campus's shed- and flat-roofed structures as a grid of nested spaces that gradually become more public. Private bedroom suites open to hallways; two suite pairs surround a living room and kitchen to form a house. Outside, the houses form pairs and then a foursome around the pool and community center. And at each entry point into a more social area, there is a protected pause—under a canopy, perhaps, or at a shielded bench or patio—so residents can assess their options before they engage, explains Maytum.

The nesting pattern also finds expression in Sweetwater's position in the wider community, where some residents hold jobs and everyone ventures out for activities such as walks and bike rides. “One purpose of Sweetwater is to push toward normalcy and give choices,” says Sheerin.

For the houses, the architects chose a palette of subdued colors and durable materials such as carpet tile, linoleum, and high-density gypsum board. They prioritized indoor air quality and indirect lighting because many adults with autism have sensory sensitivities. Ambient sounds are softened with perforated wood ceilings and a low-velocity ventilation system that incorporates radiant heating and cooling. (Ceiling fans were avoided because their rapid motion and flickering shadows can cause discomfort.)

Since Sweetwater was conceived as permanent housing, LMS built in accessible features: wide corridors, low countertops, and wheelchair-friendly bathrooms, for instance. “The plan is that residents will age in place,” says Maytum.

The architects also looked ahead to 2020—California's target date for achieving net zero energy for all new residential construction. Rooftop solar panels, which supply about 72,000 kilowatt-hours per year, satisfy about 75 percent of the campus's energy needs; additional panels, if installed later, would bring the project to net zero.

But the project's largest ambition lies in the social ties its creators hope will take root, both among residents and between Sweetwater and the town. Residents who participate in the farm, for example, might gradually form friendships. And at harvest time, townspeople may gain some familiarity with autism through Sweetwater's roadside farmstand. “One of our responsibilities is to be educators to the community,” says Sheerin, adding, “Autism is, and will continue to be, very much a part of our culture.”

Size: 16,315 square feet (gross)

Cost: withheld

Completion date: January 2013

Lamar Anderson is a San Francisco–based writer and a frequent contributor to RECORD.


Owner: Sweetwater Spectrum, Inc.

Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects
677 Harrison Street
San Francisco, CA 94107
T. 415.495.1700
F. 415.495.1717

Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Marsha Maytum, FAIA, LEED AP - Principal In Charge
William Leddy, FAIA, LEED AP - Consulting Principal
Christopher May, AIA, LEED AP BD+C - Project Architect
Gregg Novicoff, AIA, LEED AP BD+C
Vanna Whitney, AIA
Claudia Merzario
Andrew Hamblin

Geotechnical: Miller Pacific Engineering Group
Civil: Adobe Associates, Inc.
Structural: Structural Design Group
MEP: Timmons Design Engineers

Landscape: Roche + Roche Landscape Architecture
Lighting: Architectural Lighting Design
Acoustical: Charles M. Salter Associates
Other (Joint Trench Design): Nor-Coast Utility Design
Other (Furniture): One Workplace
Other (Solar Photovoltaic Provider): California Clean Energy, LLC

General Contractor:
Midstate Construction

Tim Griffith
T: 415.640.1419

CAD system, project management, or other software used:
Google SketchUp
Adobe Creative Suite



Structural system
Wood framing

Exterior cladding
Wood: T & G Western Red Cedar
Moisture barrier: Fortifiber Building Systems JumboTex Weather-Resistive Barrier
Fiber Cement Board: JamesHardie HardiePanel Vertical Siding
Other: Draper Exterior Sun Shades

Built-up roofing: Johns Manville
Metal: AEP Span Metal Roofing

Composite Frame: Pella Impervia Composite Sliding & Casement Windows
Aluminum Exterior Storefront: US Aluminum
Aluminum Interior Storefront: Wilson Partitions

Glass: PPG Solarban 70XL
Skylights: VELUX Skylights
Insulated-panel or plastic glazing: PolyGal Polycarbonate sheets

Entrances: US Aluminum Storefront Entrances
Metal doors: Ceco Doors
Wood doors: Haley Architectural Doors
Sliding doors:
Fleetwood Exterior Aluminum Glazed Sliding Doors,
Pella Impervia Composite Sliding Patio Doors
Overhead Garage Door: C.H.I. Overhead Doors

Locksets: Schlage
Closers: LCN
Pulls: Trimco & Rockwood

Interior finishes
Acoustical ceilings: Architectural Components Group, Inc. Acoustical Wood Ceiling Panels
Cabinetwork and custom woodwork: Maple Veneer
Paints and stains: Sherwin Williams Paint
Plastic laminate: Wilsonart Laminate
Solid surfacing: DuPont Corian Solid Surface Shelving
Special surfacing: DuPont Zodiaq Quartz Countertop Surfaces
Floor and wall tile (cite where used): Dal Tile wall and floor tile @ bathrooms
Resilient flooring: Forbo Marmoleum Resilient Flooring
Carpet: Shaw Carpet Tile
Special interior finishes unique to this project: National Gypsum Gold Bond High Impact Gypsum Board

Office furniture: Steelcase
Chairs: Davis Furniture, Room and Board, Bernhardt Design
Tables: Coalesse, Room and Board, Bernhardt Design
Upholstery: Design Tex

Interior ambient lighting: Peerless Lighting, Pinnacle Architectural Lighting
Downlights: Lithonia Lighting, Winona Lighting, USAI Lighting
Exterior: Winona Lighting, Lithonia Lighting
Dimming System or other lighting controls: Wattstopper Occupancy Sensors

WC: Kohler
Lavatories: Zurn
Bathtubs: Bootz Industries
Jacuzzi Tubs: Kohler
Showers: Delta
Sinks: Just Sinks
Drinking Fountain: Halsey Taylor

Energy management or building automation system: Siemens Building Technology
Photovoltaic system: Suntech Photovoltaic Modules

Other unique products that contribute to sustainability:
Roof Insulation: ICYNENE Closed Cell Spray Foam Insulation
Wall Insulation: Owens Corning EcoTouch Batt Insulation
Underslab Insulation: Dow Styrofoam Rigid Underslab Insulation
Solar Thermal Water Collectors: SunEarth Inc. Glazed Flat Plate Solar Collectors
Radiant Heating/Cooling Slab: Rehau Radiant Tubing
Cooktops: GE Induction Cooktops