Snug Architects' deliberately domestic alternative to conventional women’s prisons in Southampton shows a carefulness that makes sense for society
‘There is a wealth of evidence showing that children of imprisoned mothers have far worse outcomes. You are 85% more likely to end up in the justice system as an adult if your mother goes to prison when you are a child – if you are a boy, it’s 92%,’ explains Jane Smith, community director for Hope Street. ‘One reason for that is that if dad goes to prison, often the children’s lives don’t change much. They stay in the family home, go to school, mum and siblings are still there. But if mum goes into prison, that’s often the catalyst for the break up of the family; loss of the family home, children going into care, siblings are separated… Once you are in the care system, it’s difficult to come out, even if mum’s only been in prison for 10 weeks. She is deemed to have made herself intentionally homeless by going into prison, so she goes to the bottom of the housing list, made worse because she hasn’t got her kids with her.’
This, and to break the cycle of re-offending, are the reasons behind Snug Architects’ latest project, Hope Street in Southampton. The two-part building has been commissioned by One Small Thing, a charity founded by Lady Edwina Grosvenor whose mission is to ‘redesign the justice system for women and their children’.
In England and Wales in 2022, of the 79,442 people in prison, only 3,216 were women. Women’s convictions are generally less severe, with shorter sentences – for example, in 2019, 30% were for TV licence evasion. At the heart of the building is the issue that women are still far more likely to be the primary caregivers. The new centre is conceived as an alternative to prison detention for women serving custodial sentences when they would be better remaining in the community to avoid these disastrous social consequences, which have enormous financial costs for local authorities and taxpayers too
Hope Street is located on The Avenue, a wide and pleasant boulevard lined with mature trees on the northern route out of Southampton city centre. It’s a conservation area of mostly spacious detached and semi-detached Victorian villas, some still residential, others big enough to have been converted to offices and other uses. The project, however, is built on the site of a former First Church of Christ Scientist building – itself built on a bomb site from World War II and an anomaly on the street. The location allows the women to be both part of society and slightly removed. It’s green, well-connected to transport and has the appropriate balance between civic and private – nor is it far from Southampton’s courts at the bottom of the avenue.
Snug Architects’ approach has been to re-establish the continuum of the Victorian boulevard. The front part that faces the street contains the reception and administration programme, while the residential component, housing up to 24 women and children, sits to the rear of the plot in a building separated by a landscaped garden, creating a hygiene between work and living. The garden, between the front and rear buildings, also resolves the problem of a sewer that bisects the site, while the single road frontage allows natural surveillance.
Design-wise, the front administration building restores the building line of the neighbouring houses, setting it back from the road with a low front boundary wall that encloses planted areas and a hard standing for parking made to look like a residential driveway. The frontage is designed as three individual houses or villas, connected by glazed links. They each share the same characteristics and palette of materials – repeating fenestration patterns, zinc pitched roofs, oak timber cladding on the ground floor and the pale London stock bricks of the adjacent Victorian villas.
Women that live at Hope Street will run the café, providing interaction, engagement and skills
‘We wanted it to have a domestic articulation,’ explains Snug Architects’ director Mike Worthington. ‘No big signage, not symmetrical, but calm and approachable.’
While the frontage looks like well-designed conventional townhouses, the project is anything but conventional, instead finding architectural expression for a quietly radical programme. The building’s objective is completely new, which has meant starting from first principles. Snug Architects became involved in the project in 2019 as the local practice in addition to Michaelis Boyd Associates and after Heatherwick Studio had already set up a design guide. The scheme required substantial collaboration between all parties in the justice system and is in here because it was something that Southampton as a municipality was open to and got behind. It needed to be a home for the women placed there, and their children. The brief also called for sanctuary and community to accommodate the healing trauma course for the women, and to foster a community both within it and in its local area.
The street-facing building is therefore largely a public building. Both the women residents and public can move in it. There are two entrances. The double doors to the north (left) are the main thoroughfare and reception. To the left in the first terraced house is a café that has not yet opened but will be available to all. It will be run by the women that live at Hope Street, providing interaction, engagement and skills training in hospitality. To the right of the entrance, in the middle house, is an activity room that can be used for community functions, communal yoga sessions for example.
The other entrance, a single doorway, to the south of the site in the third townhouse, is the welcome lounge for women and their families arriving for the first time, perhaps straight from court. There are private consultation rooms that can host virtual court meetings or those between the women and other partner agencies. They can also start to get settled, choosing their bedding and pyjamas. To the rear of this space is the only bedroom in the front building, designed for women who might arrive with health needs, perhaps for substance abuse. It is ensuite, everything is carefully designed but not anti-ligature. It aims to avoid the feeling of subordination, and maintain a sense of independence and individual authority.
The brickwork continues inside between the ‘houses’ and the finishes are residential in nature – brushed bronze ironmongery, for example; in equivalent municipal buildings it would often be brushed stainless steel. Pendant lighting is prioritised over spotlights, and there are engineered real oak floors. Back at the other end of the building, behind the café, is a communal kitchen and sitting room for the women to use themselves as well as welcome visitors. It has a fireplace and stove to create a more homely feel. And you won’t find pastel colours or too many curves, as during initial consultation workshops these were clichés that the women participants identified as being particularly undesirable, redolent as they are of other institutions they may have encountered.
Upstairs is mainly dedicated to office and administration spaces. The most northerly building has the offices for One Small Thing, in the middle building is a large meeting room that can be used to host seminars as the organisation becomes a centre for excellence for change to the justice system and in the right hand building is a staff kitchen and hot-desking space for the partner agencies to work in too. The only exception is to the rear, which accommodates the Hope Room – a suite of rooms that partially project from the rear elevation and the only spaces to leave the CLT structure exposed. Completely timber-lined, with very dampened acoustics, they are designed as a ‘world away’ for the counselling and healing trauma courses for the women residents and reserved solely for that purpose. The spaces have pyramid vaulted ceilings that culminate in a rooflight, contributing to their serenity.
The rear living accommodation has much of the same language and character of the front building, containing four apartments with their own kitchen, dining and living spaces and up to four bedrooms. Women will share with other women, or with their families. The apartments are simply designed, with small single bedrooms and finishes that are relatable yet comfortable. They are arranged over two floors with deck access and an outdoor covered staircase for maximum visibility.
The centre opened in June and by August there were only three residents, but they have already started to inhabit the spaces and make them their own, with pot plants outside their front doors and their own belongings. Both residents and staff are still learning how to operate the centre – it remains a new and evolving model. Time will tell whether it leads to better outcomes for women in the justice system, and the children potentially caught up in it too. What’s certain is Snug Architects has designed a centre that restores the majesty of this part of the street and works contextually, while delving into the research and thought processes that mean the building creates the best possible opportunity for healing, progress and renewal too.
Gia, front administrative building 820m²
Gia, rear residential building 538m²
Total gia 1358m²
Architect Snug Architects
Client One Small Thing
Employer’s agent BECM
Main contractor Chisolm and Winch
Landscape architect Harris Bugg Studio
Interior designer Focus Design
Structural and civil engineer Calcinotto
Specialist CLT subcontractor Eurban
Approved building control Inspector Sweco
MEP consultant Mesh Energy