Caldera Place Apartments in Concord, Calif., is just 12 units of very low-income housing, but it's been garnering some mighty big praise lately. Erick Mikiten, the architect responsible for its inventive design, was recently presented with the 2002 Alan J. Rothman Award for Best Accessible Housing by the American Institute of Architects and HUD.

"As a wheelchair-riding architect, my goal was to integrate exceptional access with great design," says Mikiten. "The building codes may protect against blatant errors, but I go a step beyond that."

Each unit at Caldera Place has numerous universal design features, including emergency strobe lights for deaf residents and large, roll-in showers. But the judges expressed special praise for one unusual component: a full ramp to the second floor, which gives residents an alternative to using the elevator. It wraps around the building and defines a small community center/courtyard where residents often gather.

"Anyone who uses a wheelchair or anybody with real mobility problems is very uncomfortable being on the second floor of a building that only has access by one elevator," says Mikiten, who also took care to include such aesthetic details as stone porch walls and a saw-tooth picket fence to blend the building with nearby Craftsman-style homes. "If an elevator goes out of service or there's an emergency, you're stuck. I wanted to provide [a way] for people to be able to get out in a graceful way, not to be carried down a set of stairs."

For residents, the extra-wide ramp is both an escape route and convenient.
Courtesy Caldera Place For residents, the extra-wide ramp is both an escape route and convenient.