Taking a Group Home Project From Initial Concept to Final Completion

Few building projects cause more concern among community members than the dreaded “group home.” Years of negative press coverage, dire warnings of property value loss, and a general misconception that all group homes are “halfway houses” for hardened criminals, have soured public sentiment so effectively that the project team faces an immediate challenge of public perception.

The successful integration of transitional, group, and crisis housing for individuals with behavioral and intellectual challenges into the fabric of an area traditionally zoned residential is a challenging but necessary step towards the destigmatization of these patient groups. Design professionals must work collectively with all stakeholders in the process to assure that projects are completed in a timely, cost-efficient, and effective manner. This approach should include addressing community engagement, code interpretation by the governing authority, construction practices, and facility maintenance.

How We Got Here – A Short History of  Group Homes in America
By the mid-20th century, traditional institutional mental health care in the United States was coming under increasing scrutiny. Widespread instances of abuse and neglect in national news stories caused slowly mounting public outrage. Adding pressure was the downsizing and eventual closure of large federal mental institutions as a by-product of the Kennedy Administration’s Community Mental Health Act of 1963, which broke up the national system of mental health facilities and transferred oversight to the newly formed National Institutes of Mental Health(a).

The federal government began to investigate a new delivery method where all but the most fundamentally challenged individuals were cared for locally in residential treatment settings, with an emphasis on the eventual integration of these individuals into society while still receiving treatment. It was a well thought out concept, but in reality these community based treatment facilities were never fully funded, and fewer than half were ever built.

In the 1980’s the government effectively ceded control of the vast majority of mental health care to the individual states(b). The years that followed created a patchwork of community non-profit providers and Medicare funded facilities that varied wildly in both quality and effectiveness. Most of the prevailingly negative views of group homes are due the spotty record of facilities of this era.

The states now acted as both mental health care providers and guardians of the best interests of their residents. As residential group treatment facilities grew in number and infamy, local governments started enacting ever more restrictive laws governing where and how group treatment facilities could operate.

The conflict forced many group homes into marginal locations usually reserved for industrial uses.

In response to this and other conditions at the time, the federal goverment created the 14th amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, and enacted a series of rulings that limited local control over group home restrictions(c). Individual states were tasked with treating group homes with fewer than eight individuals as residences. Even with these mandates, local officials are often under extreme pressures to find ways to block these facilities often based on dubious code interpretations.

Community Engagement
The greatest single lesson that the author could put forward for developing a successful residential group home is community engagement. Local and regional leaders need to see these facilities for what they are – an economic driver and a service to their constituents. A successful project will not just require acceptance but support, and without it the project may not hold enough momentum to clear later hurdles.

In reality, engagement may be an easier sell. The facilities have many advantages: they are a direct economic and social benefit; if well managed, they make excellent neighbors; construction quality is typically
in excess of residential standards; they provide jobs for skilled and semi-skilled workers, and finally; these facilities have the worthy goal of successfully integrating individuals back into their own communities while keeping those in treatment close to loved ones, and few among us have not been at least indirectly touched by mental illness, developmental disorders, or addiction.

The owner should confirm that local elected officials are aware of the project, and be alert for signs of anyone subverting the project at an elected level. It may also benefit the owner or owner’s representative to act as a single point of contact for all interested neighbors, community leaders, and media regarding the nature of the project. This individual should be responsive, open, and engaging with the public. All other project team members should be instructed to divert any questions to this single source.

Code Interpretation
The local jurisdiction’s interpretation of code can heavily influence the project approach. If local officials are confused about classifying a group home, conflict can emerge between agencies in regards to jurisdiction, resulting in significant delays from inter- departmental wrangling (see case sudy).

Construction Practices
Once the building is cleared for construction, the owner should budget for a healthy contingency fund (up to thirty percent of the project budget). Local officials often reserve the right to require any ad- ditional items or systems they feel necessary. Con- struction delays from imposed requirements are an ever-present concern until the final certificate of occupancy is issued.

Potential contractors should be experienced in commercial and institutional work. Residential contractors are rarely suited for the trials and tribulations of these projects and are often dumbfounded by the commercial requirements when imposed. Interior finishes and construction for group homes are much more akin to medical office interiors or hotel rooms than private residences. Contractors should be aware of the requirements of anti-ligature fixtures and impact resistant finishes depending on resident type. Where applicable, extra fixtures and materials should be stored on site (see below).

Facility Maintenance
Finally, provisions need to be made for ongoing maintenance. By their very nature, group homes are subject to far greater abuse than a typical residence or even commercial building. This is often overlooked when budgeting for this type of facility. At a bare minimum at least one spare window sash of each type, several sheets of any specialty drywall, an assortment of common fixtures, and other items for repairs should be housed on site.

As the project reaches completion, there should be a clear understanding between the owner and contractor on what is considered part of the warranty period, and what damages are considered outside the warranty. Owners are strongly advised to either hire a full- time maintenance contractor, or sign a contract with a maintenance service provider prior to occupancy.

Provided the design professional is careful, thorough, and aware of the potential pitfalls, none of the above mentioned problems are insurmountable. While the process may seem daunting, this paper attempts to present the most realistic and cautious assessment possible. As design professionals with deep experience in this project type, we hope our expertise can help streamline this process for those who follow after us.

Conducting early plan review meetings can prevent conflicts during review and construction. If the local entity seems unsure how to approach the project, draft a written strategy with them on how to achieve approval from the jurisdiction for these facilities. All parties involved should have a say in this plan so that no one feels overlooked later. Ensure those at the meetings have ultimate departmental authority. Often these duties are given to junior reviewers, only to have a senior code official overturn their decisions later.