A community for adults with autism shows the power of an understated landscape.
By John King, Honorary ASLA
If Sweetwater Spectrum in Sonoma, California, had been one of her typical Bay Area projects—the visitor center of a winery, perhaps—Nancy Roche might have chosen a different aesthetic in selecting the five trees that will form a statuesque line between the lawn and the communal porch within the cluster of four spacious four-bedroom houses designed by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects. She might have gone with ornamental pear or a particularly vivid maple, something that in the autumn would shed its leaves with fiery drama.
But Sweetwater isn’t a typical project, or a typical residential enclave. It’s perhaps the nation’s first housing complex designed specifically for adults with autism living largely on their own, a population that is served best by surroundings that offer predictability and simplicity rather than potentially disruptive stimulation. So when it came time to order the high-visibility quintet, intended to form a linear canopy 40 feet high, the tree she selected was a different deciduous variety, zelkova, a relative of the American elm.
“I chose them because I like them, but also because the fall color is a more subtle rusty red,” says Nancy, who with her husband, Dave Roche, ASLA, leads Roche + Roche Landscape Architecture, a four-person firm based three miles away. “It’s more sophisticated than a brighter maple, but also less jarring.”
The project received a 2015 ASLA Honor Award in Residential Design for Sweetwater Spectrum, a 2.8-acre compound for 16 residents that is located in a settled neighborhood four blocks west of Sonoma’s historic and tourist-friendly town square. More important than professional recognition, though, is this: Three years after the pioneering community opened, the Roches’ quietly compelling landscape does its job. It serves the residents for which it was intended while also serving as a reminder that landscape architecture can enrich lives without putting on a show.
Like the complex that frames them, the grounds at Sweetwater are intended as an environment that is open-ended but secure, protected from the outside world yet close to a bike trail, shopping, and the town square for when residents wish to venture beyond their community’s fenced-in edge. It’s an L-shaped property where the residential area sits between parking on the east and a possible expansion site that for now holds vegetable beds, two greenhouses, and a pen for chickens and roosters. The housing and common areas fill the acreage in between, with tall single-story houses on each end that face each other, their outer wings forming open “thresholds” that mark the entrances to the residential area—a simple procession of a wide concrete pathway beneath a cedar trellis topped by ribbed fiberglass, the short passageway softened by trumpet vine that cloaks the structural walls of the housing on either side.
Each house has an identical design, the entrance pulled back while the bedroom wings form an open courtyard offering a semiprivate transition space as you near the front door. The courtyards are entered from the central passageway, which also passes through a shared landscape with the community center on the north and a fenced-in pool and spa on the south, a lawn and bunchgrass in between.
There are concrete walls to differentiate spaces within the commons, but they rise only three or four feet and offer benches to sit on. The zelkovas are in the middle of the space, but they’ll be pruned so that the canopy begins well above a resident’s head; open sight lines are valued both by residents who want to know what’s around them and by staff or assistants who wish to keep an eye on what might be going on.
The plant selection within the thresholds won’t surprise anyone who’s visited the counties around San Francisco: It’s a drought-tolerant, Mediterranean-influenced collection, drawing on such staples as sage, lavender, and rosemary. Low mounds of star jasmine near each home’s entrance add fragrance in spring and early summer. Along the main walkway, California fuchsia (Epilobium) keeps a hint of salmon color into October.
It’s how all this is deployed that clues you in to the needs of Sweetwater’s population: The plants are arranged in large beds and complementary textures rather than energetic arrays of contrasting colors and forms. The aromatic jasmine is the only plant type with a fragrance within each open courtyard, so there’s no chance of dueling scents that might cause confusion. The courtyards also feature small banks of asparagus fern—chosen as a soft green contrast to the darker green of the jasmines but also because, in the words of Nancy Roche, “everything needed to be not poisonous and not injurious.” The ferns are spiky yet soft, easy for curious residents to rustle with their hands, and if one breaks off, no problem.
These calls aren’t just intuitive. They draw on an emerging body of research about how to create places where people with autism can have access to the general population while living among others with their condition. Nor is this an abstract question relevant only to a small number of adults and their families.
Autism spectrum disorder has been identified in as many as 1 in 68 children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The aging of this population will translate to a need for new types of housing options calibrated to people who are capable in the right circumstances of living away from their family or outside of an institution, but are unlikely to function well on their own in conventional settings. You see this at Sweetwater, where the tenants range in age from 20 to 38. Some have support staff (paid for by their families) on hand almost around the clock; others volunteer at Sonoma’s town library or attend the local state college. One young adult shook my hand but looked away on a visit. Another, after I was led into the house he shares with three other young men, hurled himself onto a large couch and pulled a blanket over his head.
Parents of children with autism are all too aware of the long-term housing challenge and, in its own modest way, that’s how Sweetwater Spectrum came to be. The seed was planted in a casual conversation between two couples who each had an autistic teenager and were introduced to each other at a holiday party. They shared their worries about how to provide the best possible living situation for their children, then began trading e-mails. Eventually, the two couples joined with three other families to form a nonprofit foundation that would explore how to create a setting that would fulfill what they saw as their children’s long-term domestic needs. One of the parents, a real estate agent, learned of a large site being offered for sale by the city of Sonoma. It was the recession, the price was right, and the property changed hands in December 2009. In September 2011, construction began.
By the time the Roches joined the design team at the beginning of 2011, the site had already been laid out by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, a San Francisco firm that specializes in what cofounder Marsha Maytum calls “mission-driven projects.” In the past this has included supportive housing for formerly homeless adults and a small campus in Berkeley for the Center for Independent Living, a pioneer in the disabled rights movement, but serving the autistic population was a different sort of mission. “Calm and clarity and comfort—those characteristics were really important,” Maytum says. “It was more important to have comfortable spaces within the landscape” than attention-getting architecture.
One resource was Advancing Full Spectrum Housing: Design for Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders by Sherry Ahrentzen and Kimberly Steele, a study that was published in 2009 by Arizona State University. Among the points they emphasized was that “physical features, materials, and layout should be designed and selected so as to reduce provoking added stress” and that “simplifying the sensory environment is critical”—but at the same time, “settings devoid of sensory stimulation may not be therapeutic.” In other words, the settings for daily life shouldn’t be so innocuous as to numb one’s awareness of their surroundings, though overstimulation would likely cause stress.
At Sweetwater, striking this delicate balance translates to touches such as the thresholds, a clear delineation between the residential community and its surroundings, and the identical layout of each house with the common rooms in the middle, the kitchen and living room and open dining area, and the individual bedrooms in the wings on either side: “They’re designed to be the same so that if there’s a need for someone to be relocated, there’s a familiarity from house to house,” Maytum says. The deep, broad courtyards also take cues from the work of Ahrentzen and Steele, who described such zones as “a good option since they are legible, private, safe, and accessible.”
This was a new sort of challenge for Roche + Roche, which is one reason the couple was eager to join the design team when Maytum reached out. After working for the prior decade at different firms, Dave in Napa County and Nancy in San Francisco, the two married and decided to settle in the Bay Area’s wine country and set up shop outside Sonoma in 2005, developing a business that consists largely of designing private estates across the region, from Silicon Valley to the northern reaches of Napa Valley. If there’s a thread that runs through their work, Nancy Roche says, it’s the desire to craft sanctuary more than showcases: “We take what I’d call a calm approach to gardens.” They also saw an attraction to coming in at a point when the basic layout was set and the foundation leaders had done their research. “The community set the parameters for the space,” Nancy Roche says. “I kind of liked that.… It’s not like a lot of projects, where clients can’t articulate what they think is needed until they see what you propose and say they wanted something else.”
Still, the landscape design was far more involved than simply selecting plants or structural furniture. The circulation pattern through the central open space, for instance, is easily discerned but not a rigid line; Dave Roche wanted to prevent a too-orderly monotony. And although the open courtyards for the individual houses are virtually identical, with the same plant scheme and layout in each, the small nooks between the community center and the house on either side each have a distinct identity. The one that gets the most use features two hammocks separated by a strawberry tree, popular retreats for residents seeking gentle repetitive movement: “We tried to create opportunities where people could be alone together,” Dave Roche says.
Inevitably, some of the spaces and details look institutional, such as the overscaled concrete patio between the community building and the lawn. It’s a response to the need for one space within the residential core where tables can be arranged outdoors for such occasional events as a dinner where all family members are invited; the concrete rectangle has an even more plateau-like feel because of the need to include a wide pathway along the edge for residents who want ample space around them as they walk from one place to another. But then there’s a gust of afternoon wind and you catch the rustle of feather grass behind the south corners of the lawn, bringing life to a backdrop strip along the swimming pool’s fence—a visual accent like none other within the grounds, one compared by Nancy Roche to the shifting tides of the California coast: “It’s soft, fascinating; you’re looking at the beach, and you don’t know why.”
Not every design impulse passed scrutiny. Early on, Dave Roche thought of enlivening one nook alongside the community center with a gravel court for the French game petanque, a feature more suited to a small resort than the client at hand. Nor are there fountains, which would add an aural element to the mix. “Water, we learned very quickly, would be more of a problem than an asset,” Dave Roche says, since people with autism can be drawn compulsively to flowing water.
There is, however, a pool. In two visits, this was the space where I saw residents at ease together, lounging in the spas while the support staff who accompany some of them relaxed at the other. It’s an amenity that would look at home in any smart apartment complex—except for the dense smooth fencing, metal with a tight weave selected by the Roches so that residents couldn’t climb over it.
That’s what is so intriguing about Sweetwater: It’s not a managed-care facility, yet some of the residents have attendants on a nearly full-time basis (each house includes a small office space that can double as a sleeping area for a resident’s caregiver). Asked about the criteria for living at the complex, then-executive director Deirdre Sheerin put it this way during my visit: “You have to be able to live in a community setting, safely, and other people can’t be afraid of you.… Residents have to have a plan for care, but we don’t say, ‘Give us your plan so we can review it.’” And, as the three-year anniversary passed in January 2016, only two individuals have signed a lease and then left. One didn’t take to the communal aspects; the other proved too disruptive.
Asked how she might tweak Sweetwater if she had the opportunity, Sheerin looked beyond the quartet of homes to the acre on the west, a semirural plot that wasn’t within the boundaries of Roche + Roche’s work. Two areas intended as orchards have struggled, while the shared vegetable beds in the ground aren’t popular with the large number of residents who would rather work within a space they know is theirs.
But when it came to the residential area inside the trellis-topped thresholds, Sheerin had no complaints. Even the less-used nook alongside the community center met with her approval. It has come to feature the odd juxtaposition of olive trees, abundant lavender, and bicycle racks, proof that communities need spaces that can respond to unexpected desires.
For their part, the Roches appeared satisfied when visiting Sweetwater last August for only the third time since opening day. If the moor grass (Sesleria autumnalis) between the patio and lawn had a patchy look, that was to be expected late in the summer during yet another year of drought. Once-spiky cape rush along the walkway had been given a crew cut instead of individual stalks being clipped out at the base, as is best for long-term care.
But to see those imperfections you have to squint—and the calm order of Sweetwater in a town amid vineyards and hills is more potent than a rough patch here or there. The landscape within the thresholds feels right: muted but with character, a collage of soft textures and colors with just enough differentiation to be memorable. A frame for living that’s not confining, yet maps out dependable spaces and paths.
The Roches’ current work runs the affluent gamut of Northern California life. There are private homes and the tasting room for the Vineyardist, a winery in Napa above Calistoga with a waiting list for the $200-plus Cabernet Sauvignon. Then there’s the renovation and upgrade of the historic Timber Cove Inn, on a steep cliff along Sonoma County’s coast.
“This was a different project for us, with a larger purpose than some of the things we do,” Nancy Roche says, sitting in the shade of the patio’s overhang, looking out at a tranquil summer afternoon where the only movement was the shimmer of feather grass and two residents splashing in the pool. “Serving an underserved community expanded our viewpoint. The 1 percent has all the resources it needs.”
John King, Honorary ASLA, is the San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic. He also is the author of Cityscapes 2: Reading the Architecture of San Francisco, published in September by Heyday.
Project Credits: Client/Owner Sweetwater Spectrum, Sonoma, California. Landscape Architect Roche + Roche Landscape Architecture, Sonoma, California. Architect Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, San Francisco. Civil Engineer Adobe Associates, Inc., Santa Rosa, California. Structural Engineer Structural Design Group, Santa Rosa, California. MEP Engineer Timmons Design Engineers, Inc., San Francisco. Lighting Design Architectural Lighting Design, San Francisco. General Contractor Midstate Construction, Petaluma, California. Landscape Contractor Landesign Construction & Maintenance, Inc., Santa Rosa, California. Swimming Pool Contractor Bluestone Pool and Landscape, Napa, California. Fence/Bench Contractor Kenwood Fence Company, Santa Rosa, California.
Photo Credit: Marion Brenner, Affiliate ASLA.