Thanks for the comments and links! We have been looking around online for a while basically to get ideas of what others have found that seems to be a good design. Unfortunately, yes, special needs beds are very expensive! One of the first I looked at was $4k. Yesterday, just for comparison, I called and asked for a price quote on a bed that we like some of the 'bigger features' of and wanted to know whether it would be worth it to my dad to build it or whether we should just purchase it. Hands down, he should build the customized version that we'd already talked about. Then bed was $7k. Another comment was left that said the bed they were suggesting was around $9k!
It amazes me that these beds are so incredibly expensive! Whatever we end up doing will be coming out of our pocket. Not medicaid (we don't have it), not insurance (they don't cover it), not anything but our own paychecks and savings if we buy it outright. It is just crazy that people would expect that because a child has special needs their family can afford to pay thousands of dollars for a safe bed for them! I'm thankful we have my dad and that he is willing to do this for us. He's very talented and we've already talked about our plans to take a few different design ideas which we found online and liked and put them all together into a custom bed for Emma.
In the end she should end up with a twin bed that has 4 sides to it. One side will have either a mechanism for it to drop down or otherwise lower- hopefully all the way down to the mattress so that changing the sheets is a little easier. The sides will be around 42" from the top of the mattress-- that's a little taller than Emma is now (she's around 36" I think...). At the moment she can get out of the playpen and out of the crib with the side lowered, so we want to make sure that as she grows it will continue to be effective in providing her with a safe place to sleep. And lastly, the side that comes down would be 'optional' so as she grows and matures, if she is able to be in the bed without the side to keep her in it and safe, it could be arranged that way. If Dad is going to spend a lot of time making this for Emma, we'd like it to be something that grows along with her and will meet the future needs that we can possibly foresee with her including both the possibility of pretty decent mobility and understanding of safety and any variety between where we're at now and there.
So... if you have any bed designs you've seen online or have in your head, link me over! And if there's anything that might accomplish what we're looking for and is under about $2k... I'd love to hear about those too. With my dad making the bed it will likely cost significantly less than that too... :)