Designing a new home for survivors of abuse: 7 ways to help you adopt the right mindset

April 16, 2019 Olivia Keung

Here’s how you can balance security, comfort, and privacy when designing a purpose-built shelter for women


When you picture a women’s shelter, what comes to mind? Do you envision a warm, inviting space that provides support, creates a sense of community, and feels like home? That’s the vision my team and I focused on while redesigning the Green Haven Shelter for Women.

The nearly 30-year-old shelter in Orillia, Ontario, gives survivors of abuse a safe haven, and allows them to live in an environment of mutual respect. But the current shelter building can no longer effectively serve the needs of its users, as it’s become outdated and uncomfortable. So, my design team needed to create a new building with robust security features that didn’t feel like an institution.

Designing a purpose-built shelter, as opposed to renovating an existing space, requires a certain mindset. If you’re working on a project like this, what’s the best way to approach your design? How can you help your client help their clients in need?


The design team wanted to create a powerful sense of arrival at the new Green Haven Shelter for Women. The shelter’s design includes a canopy that shields women and their children from wet weather.


1. Create a welcoming entrance

It’s likely, a woman’s arrival at a shelter is emotionally charged. She might feel ashamed, uncertain, endangered, or optimistic and finally in control of her life. In response to this critical moment, you need to make sure your shelter feels welcoming—even before someone enters the building.

Our design at Green Haven includes a canopy that shields women and their children from wet weather. We also incorporated clear contrast in our materials and in the form of the canopy to create a simple, legible design that lets residents—and potential residents—know where they need to go right away.


_q_tweetable:A building takes on a life of its own after it’s occupied. Focus on creating an open, welcoming environment for residents._q_

2. Make sure it’s accessible

Ensure your shelter is accessible for everyone. You don’t want women to be turned away because of accessibility problems. At Green Haven’s current location, both floors are a half-level up or down, which presents a challenge for someone using a wheelchair or dealing with mobility issues. We made sure that the new building is fully accessible—including the outdoor areas—so everyone can use the space. Incorporate an elevator into your design if your shelter has more than one floor.  


3. Include ample parking

You might not think of parking as an important part of your design, but it is. Green Haven’s current space doesn’t have enough parking, because the original assumption was that women visiting the shelter wouldn’t own a vehicle. The reality is that some of the women accessing this shelter live in their cars. This illustrates a wider idea about design: If you don’t engage users, and if the design team can’t relate to users, you’ll get things wrong in your design solution.


4. Design for trust, not surveillance

Let trust dictate your design. Make your spatial organization clear and straightforward. When you create greater visibility across your space, you don’t have to rely on security cameras as much.

We located Green Haven’s new family room in an area that makes it as easy as possible to access. We positioned it on the same floor as the bedrooms, so that movement into the space flows naturally and the room can become a well-loved area. Easier access means people tend to use the common spaces more. More social activity will lead to a stronger internal community. Residents will look out for each other, and they’ll also feel greater ownership toward the space—which means they’ll take better care of it.


The new shelter features a secure outdoor space and playground for children. The design is meant to encourage physical activity and well-being.


5. Keep the scale at a decent size

Try to instill a sense of intimacy in the project. In our case, a 15-bed design means that the space is big enough for the shelter to be viable but not so big that it feels institutional. It’s the perfect size to build a community.


6. Draw from your own experiences

Your life experiences may help your design more than you think. For me, that was a memory of living in a dorm at university. “Living” happened in the in-between spaces, like the stairwell and the corridors, which became a lively social space with people hanging out or talking on the phone. The stairwell worked better for one-on-one conversations. I channeled this memory into our shelter design.

Living among strangers can be highly stressful, and in designing the shelter, we reacted by making the most of all the spaces available. We could have squeezed down these in-between spaces, like the corridor and the stairs, but we saw Green Haven as a building where every square foot could be occupied and lived in.


7. Design with a light hand

It’s important to design with a light hand—particularly with a project like this. For Green Haven, we wanted it to feel like a home, but we also tried to be restrained in the design. Women who use the shelter will come and go as their situations evolve, so the needs of this group will evolve. You need to listen to and orchestrate the needs of many different people and communities. Equip your shelter with good bones—since things like daylighting, cladding, and generosity of space are difficult to change—and let the community help you figure out the rest.


Designing a building that has its own life

As architects, we often want to program each space and orchestrate how our buildings will be used. But here’s the reality: a building takes on a life of its own after it’s occupied. So, instead of imposing an inflexible vision, focus on creating an open, welcoming environment for residents to recover and flourish. If you approach a purpose-built shelter with this strategy in mind, you’ll end up with a well-loved space that provides women with a sense of comfort, community, and home.


Green Haven Shelter for Women has launched an Opening New Doors campaign to furnish and decorate their new home. To donate, visit this link

Read more about Olivia’s design approach for the Green Haven Shelter for Women in this Toronto Star article

About the Author

Olivia Keung

Olivia Keung, an architect in our Toronto, Ontario, office, believes that good design is a collaborative activity that begins by engaging the client as part of the design team. Whether the goal of a project is to help people to heal or to inspire users to come together and innovate, Olivia says that good design has enormous potential to support and enhance the activities that happen within a space.

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