When designing buildings, Access Architecture principal and founder Brendan Sanchez thinks holistically. What does a building sound like? What does it feel like? What emotions does it evoke?
The Vancouver-based, minority-owned design firm, founded in 2018, designs housing for low-income and trauma-impacted communities. Its projects range from domestic violence shelters to substance use recovery centers to low-income apartments and more.
The firm is on the cutting edge of architecture’s intersection with cognitive neuroscience. It uses community spaces, clear sightlines, calming colors and warm textures to ensure residents feel safe in their homes.
“We say something ‘feels cold’ even though we’re not touching it,” Sanchez said. “That’s because our brain is already internalizing what it’s like to touch that material. So keeping those things in mind that really do matter, but can often be overlooked.”
Access Architecture completes about 10 projects per year. Some are big housing projects costing up to $20 million, and others are smaller upgrade projects of about $200,000. Funding is typically secured by the project’s developer.
The buildings fill a practical need for the county, too. As new above-market-rate apartments rise along Vancouver’s waterfront, the need for affordable housing keeps growing.
“There’s really no discussion on mixed-income housing along the waterfront,” Sanchez said. “When you look at metrics around outcomes, not just financial outcomes but social outcomes, mixed-income communities actually do better.”
The firm is now working on Lincoln Place II, a four-story supportive housing complex being developed downtown by the Vancouver Housing Authority for people exiting homelessness.
A muted seafoam green exterior with floor-to-ceiling windows will create a light, calming atmosphere. Brick on the ground floor will provide a warm yet durable texture. A mural at the entrance will depict an abstract natural landscape in browns and blues.
“It kind of sets the tone as you approach the building: This is a place that’s going to be calm and supportive,” Sanchez said.
Its first project, The Elwood, a permanent supportive housing complex built by Council for the Homeless subsidiary Housing Initiative LLC, has seen major success since opening in 2021, with 93 percent of original tenants still in permanent housing. Access Architecture worked with Housing Initiative again on a similar complex, The Meridian, which opened last summer.
“It isn’t just lip service to get the job or to put pretty buildings around,” said Housing Initiative CEO Sierk Braam. “(Sanchez) is genuinely committed to trying to develop housing that’s life-changing for the individuals that get to live there.”
Centering lived experience
Sanchez’s 11-person staff tries not to assume anything. During and after a project, they survey residents for feedback and make changes accordingly.
As the firm designed emergency shelters in The Dalles, Ore., shelter residents explained how some spaces can feel scary because they can’t see what’s around the corner. “It was pretty invaluable,” Sanchez said.
At The Elwood, Sanchez and Braam were struck by the popularity of community gardens, which now have a waitlist.
“We put raised garden beds. And in some ways for me, I felt that it was a little bit token and a little bit pandering to scoring requirements for some federal funding,” Braam said. “It turns out, people love raised planting beds.”
Another surprise was residents’ dislike for furnished units. Braam and Sanchez learned durable furniture can feel institutional for people exiting homelessness. Furniture, Sanchez has realized, is one area where people can exercise ownership and control. He commonly gets feedback requesting more storage space.
“Those are just things that we would never know. I’ve been fortunate enough to not be homeless growing up, and so I don’t know what that experience is like,” Sanchez said. “So who am I to say what they need when we’re designing homes for them?”
It takes a village
In Washington’s highly regulated building industry, centering client needs is a lot to juggle.
“We’re having to design with so many different considerations – from what the client wants, to what the budget is, to what the code requirements are,” Sanchez said. “It takes our team as a village.”
So far, Sanchez’s firm has managed to do it all.
“Access Architecture has not only built homes intentionally designed for the most vulnerable in our community, they have also been wonderful supporters in other ways,” said Charlene Welch, Council for the Homeless development and communications director.
The firm has sponsored Council for the Homeless events, made educational videos and donated supplies for people exiting homelessness, according to Welch.
Sanchez extends his community-oriented approach to his business model, encouraging employees to spend 5 percent of paid work hours volunteering. Some employees volunteer at Architects in Schools, introducing kids in Oregon to the profession.
For Sanchez, these components are all necessary to connect community members to their homes and to one another.
“How do we use not just our work and the design process, but also our business operations to try to provide some form of healing?” he said. “When we feel like we’re connected to something greater than just ourselves, there are positive outcomes from that.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.