Case study: Housing addition for a family with an autistic adult

This is the first in a series of case studies — how real families sought to adapt or design housing to help autistic adults live their best life. This one is first because it’s the oldest and we know how it all worked out.

In 2002, Clarke (not his real name) was moving toward a special education diploma at a high school in Virginia. His family of four lived in an updated 1906 farmhouse. The two-story section, at left in the photo below, was very similar to the Free Farmhouse you may have seen. In 1936, a one-story porch with kitchen and laundry room had been added. In the 1980s, the porch was enclosed with glass to create a sunroom:

The family worked with Anna Campbell, then an architect with Shenandoah Engineering Services, to design a 1000-square-foot addition to this 1400-square-foot house. The back of the house was quickly chosen as the best place for the expansion. That little room with the pipe sticking up was a utility room.

Anna’s design called for taking off the utility room and joining the addition there.

Here’s what the first floor layout looked like (owner-drawn sketch):

And here is the second floor of the existing house:

Bedroom 3 was important in planning, because it was where Clarke and his (neurotypical) brother grew up. Bedroom 2 was the master bedroom for mom and dad. Bedroom 3, facing north and east, had excellent characteristics for Clarke. The natural light was good and the acoustics were great — a low ceiling and carpeted floor made the room “soft” acoustically:
It’s also well separated by that quarter-turn staircase from the busy downstairs of the house.

With two teenagers in the house, it was an easy choice to design the addition with a master suite and living space for mom and dad. Clarke would remain in the familiar and comfortable Bedroom 3 while his brother moved across the hall to Bedroom 2. The entire project has worked well and 20 years later, Clarke happily occupies that same room.

Here’s how the home looks now with the addition on the right:

And here’s the first floor plan, with the addition in yellow:

The second floor of the addition looks like this, incorporating a large art room, loft and half-bathroom:

Here are some observations from the family on how it all worked out:

  • The family is glad that it chose this solution. It might actually have been more cost-effective to sell the original house and buy something bigger, but this layout works well. The for-sale houses the family toured usually clustered all four bedrooms together rather than separating them into “suites” the way this design does.
  • This design enables aging in place for mom and dad, with a first-floor master suite and accessible bathroom.
  • But there will come a day when additional help is needed, and this home, even as enlarged, doesn’t really have a good extra caregiver space.
  • The addition is a little extravagant with its high ceilings and fireplace, but the existing house has small, cut-up spaces, so the two spaces complement each other well. Besides, mom and dad felt that they deserved a retreat of sorts.
  • The added garage was very helpful in dealing with an elderly relative’s visits and is also convenient in (1) loading everyone up for activities and (2) not having to scrape frost early in the morning in fall and winter before taking Clarke to his supported employment.
  • It would not be legal to build this exact plan today. Example: The old part’s upstairs ceilings are too low. And the tiny first-floor bathroom of the old house does not meet required clearances. Interestingly enough, one of the family members found that the small size was a big help during a temporary disability — easier to navigate than the larger accessible bathroom.
  • The family found it difficult to live in the house while the addition was going on, but Clarke enjoyed the construction and it saved a lot of money not to have to move out.
  • The cost of the addition seemed steep at the time, but there was a major increase in the market value of the house in going from 1400 sq. ft. to 2400 sq. ft. and in adding a bedroom plus one and a half baths.
  • During design, it’s important to remember that preferences will change over time and some rooms will need to be re-purposed. But in designing to support caregiving for autism, this family believes the most valuable suggestion is to design for multiple sleeping areas served by their own bathrooms — lots of “master suites,” so to speak, even if they’re small.
  • In looking online at house plans for ideas, the best of those came from searching for multi-generational plans or plans with multiple master suites. Just having a lot of square feet with many rooms is not always good.