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Architecture Students Design Award-Winning Prototypes for Homeless Shelters

ARH 250 Studio introduces students to the social aspects of architecture

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Exhibition logo. Courtesy of Sameena Sitabkhan & Doron Serban.

Imagine being homeless and pregnant with no place to go. Academy of Art University architecture student Fernanda Kanamori knew someone once in that position. So, when tasked with designing a homeless shelter for a class project, Kanamori knew exactly what kind of shelter she would design.

“She got kicked out of her house, she had nowhere to go, and she was having a baby,” Kanamori explained. “I wanted to design something that would make her feel special and protected.”

Her shelter for homeless pregnant women is one of 14 AIASF Community Alliance Award winning prototypes for homeless shelters designed by students last semester in ARH 250 Studio 4 – Site Culture and Integral Urbanism. A requirement for second year bachelor of architecture students, the class focuses on designing a public space with previous projects featuring a library, an elementary school and a fire station. Last spring, instructors Sameena Sitabkhan and Doron Serban introduced the homeless shelter concept, guiding the students through the design of a shelter for a site in the Tenderloin, as well as an “individual guerrilla sleeping unit,” that meets the needs of a homeless person who they met and interviewed or devised based on research. One of the key aspects of the assignment is that the shelter features a community program that creates synergy with the local community.

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Fernanda Kanamori, Maria Da Penha Homeless Shelter. Tenderloin, San Francisco, CA. This photo of Kanamori’s physical model of her shelter for pregnant homeless shelter, has a façade that abstracts phases of pregnancy as super-graphics. Part of the building is cut-away to reveal the relationship between the exterior graphics and the womb-like interior. Photo by Doron Serban.

“We give them a very generic outline for a homeless shelter—some services, beds, etc.,” Sitabkhan explained, “but they need to give it a community component to tie that shelter back into the neighborhood.”

From a gaming space where Alzheimer’s patients mingle with video game developers, to a dance studio for sex workers, a transgender clinic and a culinary school, the students who took the class last spring and the 24 students enrolled this fall have dreamed up some impressive ideas. Many of those ideas sprang up during a walking tour of the Tenderloin that puts the students face to face with the reality of homelessness, while providing a broader sense of the site they’re designing for.

“They start to understand that homelessness is not this downtrodden population that is drugged out and without any hope, but it’s all of us,” said Serban. “If you’ve ever couch surfed, we call that marginally homeless, if you’ve ever been in the hospital and are no longer paying rent, then you’re homeless. If you don’t have your own domicile, your own place to sleep, you’re homeless. Some of our students break up with their partner and all of a sudden they need a place to crash for a few days—that’s homelessness. It’s on a spectrum, and when we get them to understand and to engage on that level, all of a sudden they open up, they’re not scared of it anymore.”

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Lamiae Ameziane, Individual Guerilla Shelter Unit (IGSU): Mobile Life. Tenderloin, San Francisco, CA. This photo of Ameziane’s physical model of her IGSU she designed as a movable sleeping unit for her client, a sex worker, who asked for security, safety, freedom, and movability. Photo by Doron Serban.

One student, Kathleen Agonoy, struck by the lack of resources available to San Francisco’s sizable transgender community, decided to design her shelter with that group in mind.

“A lot of them don’t have appropriate housing, if they are placed in a shelter, they don’t feel safe, or they don’t get the medical attention they need,” said Agonoy. “I wanted to design something useful, so I incorporated a health clinic into my shelter so they would have the resources they need, the privacy they don’t currently get, and the ability to interact with others—both the general public as well as other homeless people.”

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Naomi Rojas, Individual Guerilla Shelter Unit (IGSU). Tenderloin, San Francisco, CA. Drawing of how the IGSU transforms from a daytime seating unit to a nighttime sleeping unit for a senior citizen from China, suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease, who collects recycled bottles during the day. Image courtesy of the School of Architecture.

Observing similar problems in the city’s population of homeless sex workers, Lamiae Ameziane used dance as a way to achieve both integration and emotional healing. “When people think about dance and sex workers they think about strippers, but dance itself helps people heal and forget about their past,” she explained. 

By incorporating a dance studio into her shelter, she invites the public to mingle with the homeless community in dance classes. She hopes that by bringing these groups together, some of the stereotypes about homeless people will be debunked – a sentiment that’s in line with Serban and Sitabkhan’s goal of instilling a sense of social responsibility in their students.

“With the education we have and the training we have and the fact that we’re working on the built environment, architects can be socially engaged,” said Sitabkhan, “and part of the goal of this studio is to teach them that there is a part of you as an architect that needs to be socially engaged and care about the issues that are important to you, it may not be homelessness, it may be another issue, but there are ways to get involved, there are volunteer groups, there are boards, and as an architect practicing as a professional member of society, you can fight for these issues. I think architects should have a voice.”