Why Supportive Housing Demands Smart Design Strategies

These communities must be approached differently from standard multifamily developments, argues Paige Smith of Lowney Architecture.

Paige Smith

As the critical need for affordable housing intensifies, supportive housing developments are gaining national attention and importance. Specifically designed to help people transition out of homelessness by bringing together resources for an integrated approach, supportive housing facilities provide chronically homeless individuals housing and assistance toward living more stable lives, as well as bring long-term community benefits, like combatting homelessness and elevating overall health and well-being.

When it comes to homeless services, the contrast between shelter life and supportive housing is stark. Beyond temporary protection from the elements, supportive housing provides formerly homeless individuals and families with a permanent residence and the foundational care and tools to live more independently.

Creating humanizing, safe spaces for people to stabilize, supportive housing developments offer a multipronged response to addressing compounding, layered homelessness issues and executing on specific goals for targeted populations. To maximize their success, these buildings must be carefully designed and laid out differently than standard, multifamily developments.

Supportive Services

The combination of personal living space and on-site supportive services offers residents vital tools for more independent living. A variety of amenities and programs can be incorporated into supportive facility design to accommodate the specific needs of the occupants and community-at-large. For example, an on-site clinic might deliver residents treatment for mental or physical disabilities, basic medical or dental services and/or therapy and counseling. Where there are large veteran populations, Veterans Affairs may coordinate with a supportive housing facility to provide specialized veteran-focused services for residents.

Once basic physical and mental wellbeing needs are met, residents can concentrate on overcoming poverty, and both a permanent address and essential job skills have proven to make a difference in securing long-term employment. Supportive housing facilities frequently provide designated spaces for career counseling services, including resume building, job search assistance, interview practice and computer labs. Communal spaces can be used for group sessions, gatherings or individual tenant enjoyment. Additional services might include spaces for prepared meals, cooking classes or transportation access.

Strategic Layout

Overall design and development of supportive housing facilities should blend with the existing community to avoid sticking out. Building layouts need to strike a balance between security and privacy. Cameras can create feelings of being watched or institutionalized, so it’s important to minimize their use without foregoing safety. The interior atmosphere should foster a home-like setting with calming and comfortable colors and furnishings and finishes that are durable, but soft enough to maintain a residential feel.

A single point of building entry is important. Guiding residents and visitors through an easily supervised lobby elevates building safety—for residents and staff—and allows easier monitoring of nonresidential guests. Depending on building size and siting, staff offices may be equipped with a rear door for emergencies or de-escalation of events. If emergency exits are not visible to the front desk or office staff, they should be designed to deter their use as an unmonitored entrance. Any combination of security cameras, double-gating, exterior exit alarms and exterior locks will prevent a gate from becoming a point of unauthorized access.  

Incorporating staff supervision into communal areas helps foster resident independence without creating a feeling of intrusion. This may be achieved by a staff office with a window or an open-plan kitchen with staff workspace. Support spaces, such as laundry facilities and public restrooms, do well when centrally located near staff areas so interpersonal or vandalism issues can be addressed immediately. Designated child play zones should be positioned adjacent to adult areas for parental supervision, particularly near laundry rooms and community rooms where adults may spend time.

Units to Call Home

Homeless populations tend to have more physical disabilities than average residents, so applying Universal Design principles helps ensure unit equivalency in terms of accessibility. Designing for wheelchair access on reach ranges, kitchen workspaces and bathrooms, and including clear, easy-to-follow instructions on appliances and fixtures can help occupants feel comfortable.

Often, supportive housing residents have not lived in standard housing for some time, so safety features should be included in the design. Impacts of errors, such as overfilling a bathtub, can be minimized by drain placement, greater bathroom waterproofing, and green boards on all walls rather than just the tub wall. For fire safety, at least one type of fail-safe should be considered at the stove, such as a timed shut-off or a hood-mounted fire suppression system.

Units should feature lockable front doors with peepholes, storage areas, kitchen spaces, living spaces, and private bathrooms with durable, easy-to-clean surfaces. For families, one-, two- and three-bedroom units should be set up for privacy and to meet local jurisdiction requirements for occupants per bedroom.

The interior spaces must create a sense of ownership and belonging to reduce security risks. Residents should be able to customize their spaces to some degree, such as rearranging furniture or adding their own touches to the finishes. Amenities add to the comforts of home, including dimmable lights, USB outlets, and operable windows. Some supportive housing facilities may even set aside money to help new residents furnish their own apartments and help with shopping and budgeting.

Faster, Cheaper Delivery

Supportive housing is in short supply, but new technologies can bring these essential projects to market faster and at a lower cost. For low- or mid-rise buildings, a volumetric modular approach can shave approximately 40 percent off the construction schedule for a light-framed building over a concrete podium. Light-frame panel methods will also speed up construction by 20 percent to 30 percent over traditional light-framed buildings. For high-rise construction, cross laminated timber can expedite delivery and is significantly less expensive and better for the environment.

By giving people a place to live first, then treating medical or social needs, supportive housing occupants are better suited to overcome the issues that led to their homelessness in the first place. This approach applies new thinking to helping these vulnerable populations and creative, caring methods aimed at supporting permanent exits from shelter systems or cyclical homelessness.

Paige Smith is a project manager with San Francisco Bay Area-based architecture and planning firm Lowney Architecture. Her practice focuses on the multifamily residential sector, bringing thoughtful design and execution to projects to ensure they meet the needs of clients, occupants and the surrounding communities in which they sit. She can be reached at [email protected].

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