Case study: Learning from a design that didn’t work out

This design was never built — but it helped a family clarify its goals and plans for future housing, so we present it here to benefit others who have had some of the same thoughts.

These sketches were developed in consultation with an architect but never made it to final building plans. The design specifications were:

  • A single structure to house two relatively small families, each of which was caring for one intellectually disabled adult who is “almost able to live independently.”
  • A relatively flexible structure, so that future configurations of families and individuals could adapt it as needed.
  • A large common area with full kitchen, capable of hosting gatherings of different kinds.

Here’s the floor plan that resulted:

And here are a few things to notice:

  • The basic design is a lot like a Katrina cottage for Family 1 (outlined in blue on the left) and a Katrina cottage for Family 2 (in yellow on the right), with a common area between.
  • The bedroom areas are relatively small, designed to encourage residents not to spend much time there, but instead to gravitate out toward more common spaces.
  • That’s a relatively high-capacity kitchen and laundry room, and a relatively large common area out front.
  • Each intellectually disabled resident has a bedroom, bathroom and study. Sliding doors enable flexible use of the space.
  • Important design feature: When Family 1 is “off duty,” it closes those two doors and can ignore what’s going on elsewhere. Similarly, when Family 2 is “off duty,” it closes its two doors. Thus, there are built-in opportunities for respite.

And here are some of the drawbacks of this approach:

  • This is a very costly design, with more than 3000 square feet. So it would have a “McMansion”-like expense but might not feel very luxurious.
  • More importantly, this design is a “roll of the dice.” It’s a single shot at trying to get this right, as opposed to a more incremental approach of enlarging or enhancing a known working design.
  • There’s not an obvious path to addition if this turns out to be small. There’s not an easy way to build part of it, then to complete it with an addition. It’s mostly “all or none.”
  • Those small bedrooms are really small! (Those “bed nooks” in the family areas are only 10′ by 7′ feet, meant only for napping and sleeping. This is the minimum code-compliant size in this jurisdiction.)
  • The biggest problems of all would surely be in human relations, not construction or design. What if you build this and the two families don’t get along? Do they have a coequal relationship or is it more like landlord-tenant? If you do get the two perfect families at the outset, how do you get a good match if one of the families moves away?
  • The local jurisdiction, in preliminary talks, warned that this would be considered a multi-family dwelling and would need to meet zoning and other codes accordingly. While the locality is highly disability-friendly, officials noted that future residents could make it very much like a small apartment building and therefore the project wouldn’t fit in most residential zones.

The same family that considered this approach is now looking at more conventional ideas, such as starting with a proven four-bedroom design and then augmenting it with disability-friendly features. But they did want to share this effort, in hopes that the ideas would help others.