School design to be sensitive to youth without shelter
Safe place for learning aims to inspire students to realize their potentialJuly 16th, 2020
NAC Architecture is designing a school that includes a large percentage of students from families experiencing homelessness.
At times, the percentage of students living without permanent shelter can reach 25%, and the total transient rate at the school can near 50%, or about 100 students. Transient rate refers to all students who may move in and out of the school within an academic year and includes students from families that secure temporary shelter but move regularly for employment opportunities.
Despite housing hurdles, this school manages to thrive.
Within a tight community, those connected to the school have built a safe learning environment that inspires students to realize their potential. Everyone is linked to an optimistic vibe that squashes pessimism.
Here, students aren’t identified by their living status. Instead, a conscious effort has been made to remove all labels. As architects, we are inspired to design a new school that exemplifies education equity and wellness.
To determine the needs and wants of the young learners, we regularly visit the school. The first-hand accounts we’ve collected from talking to students, teachers, and parents have greatly swayed our design and have been the catalyst for this project’s progression.
What do the students, parents, and educators need in a school?
One student brings a blanket to class. The teacher can tell when the student is anxious or overwhelmed when she pulls the blanket over her head. She uses it to shield herself from the outer world. With the blanket formed around her like a cocoon, she creates a personal and quiet place for herself to recharge.
Understanding this student’s need, and similar privacy needs of her classmates, our team plans to add small alcoves around the building for students to sit in or crawl into. These nooks will offer young learners a private space to take temporary breaks from group activity.
Another student is regularly restless and acts out in class. When this happens, the teacher allows the student to leave the classroom so that he can move freely and vocalize away from others. To assist students like this, the teacher suggested adding a defined common area outside the classroom with sound dampening glass. This will allow visibility of students while they take a break and express themselves.
There was also a comment from a young student who told us: “I don’t want to make friends. I’ll just move and lose them anyway.”
In response, our team is adding a variety of learning spaces within classrooms to support small group, project-based learning. Students like this are drawn to small groups, where they can work with other kids, but without the pressure of making friends. Students with trauma and housing instability tend to be withdrawn. Creating spaces on the edge of the activity allows them to feel safe and to connect to others in a more comfortable way.
At this school, there is a focus on love and belonging, but as architects, we understand how important it is to address the physiological and safety needs as well, so that the students are ready to receive the offer of belonging.
For homeless and transient students, basics such as food, shelter, clothing, sleep, and clean water aren’t guaranteed. Without those basics, students are typically too preoccupied worrying about survival to concentrate on schoolwork.
This is especially true for food insecure students who are always worried about where and when they will get their next meal. Conventional routines connected to food are important. The preparation of meals, the consistency of scheduled food breaks, and the habit of eating together as a family are all comforting practices.
Storage is a primary need and important to both students and parents. Students requested storage for school supplies and personal items. We are told students may bring everything they own to school, and consequently, keeping belongings safe can be a distracting priority.
In response, we’re considering adding large lockers to provide personal storage separate from the standard book lockers most students will get. These personal lockers will be in a discrete place, away from common areas, so that locker owners are not made to feel on display.
From talking to school leaders, even seemingly simple items like a toy car can mean a lot to a little one living with the bare minimum.
After all, the things you can control, including the treasures that can be kept safe in a small hand or stashed in a pocket, those things don’t go away, but people do. Students can feel as though they are perpetually leaving someone.
For those students, keeping that sense of control becomes a large part of their personal security, another basic human need. Inanimate things can serve as a steady constant for a child. It’s the comfort felt in object permanence or the insurance knowing something exists even when it’s out of sight.
For this reason, safe storage options are vital.
Our team is now moving to a second phase. We’re taking input and applying feedback we’ve gathered to design a building that we hope will ease the burden of those experiencing temporary housing challenges. As architects, we know how important it is to develop designs that support the activities of young learners and provide a variety of environments that help the students and teachers navigate their day.
We now have the opportunity to meet the needs of our neighbors by giving these children a quality, healthy, and nurturing place to learn.
It is our shared belief that every child deserves to feel safe and valued, and every child deserves to be happy.
Kevin Flanagan is a Seattle-based principal architect at NAC Architecture, Giselle Altea is a Seattle-based architectural designer with the company, and Tasha Lightning is director of research and development at NAC’s Spokane office. More information about NAC’s projects is available online at