Shelter from the Storm gives homeless a cosy berth

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Words:
Michèle Woodger

Creating a homely place was paramount for Holland Harvey Architects when it converted an estate supermarket into a homeless shelter and café. The locals are warming to it too

‘I once viewed a flat which was a converted GP surgery’ architect Chloe Anderson tells me. ‘It looked fine at first but when I noticed the coved skirting, I couldn’t shake off the institutional feeling, and I knew I could never live there’. A heartfelt desire to make the residents of Shelter from the Storm (SFTS) – an independently-run homeless shelter in north London – really feel at home in their environment, was Holland Harvey Architects’ guiding principle. From the discreet SanCeram anti-ligature showerheads to the tile edging trim that banishes the hated coved skirting, the product choices throughout this entire fit-out demonstrate an impressive thoroughness on the part of the architect. As Anderson explains: ‘We were constantly asking ourselves: would we specify this product for a private residential interior? If not, then why are we using it here?’

The night shelter offers free emergency accommodation, breakfast, dinner and holistic support to around 40 guests. During the daytime it opens as a public café. Residents typically remain for around one month; the stays are temporary but not transitory, so it was essential to create a sense of personal ownership and individual space for people who have lost their possessions and freedoms. Within each dormitory, cork-clad stud partitions break up the larger space, offer acoustic insulation and double-up as pin-boards for guests to customise their bunks. The effect is cosy hostel, not hospital. In the bathroom, mirrors and sinks are individual. The customised Bushboard ‘Definition’ shower cubicles are fully enclosed for privacy and to give residents much-needed, if momentary, space of their own. 

‘It was fundamental to understand the mindset of a guest entering the shelter for the very first time,’ says the architect. ‘Sensitivity, domesticity and warmth became driving principles.’ The shelter has two entrances: the main frontage is that of the open-plan café, whereas an unobtrusive guest entrance on the opposite side is identifiable only by its red front door and tiling. This leads to a reception area and a small, homely, office. Founder Sheila Scott explains the necessity for these calm, private rooms at a time of intense emotional vulnerability: ‘Arrival is the moment that reality sinks in. People realise that this is it – this is all they have to call home.’

 

It was fundamental to understand the mindset of a guest entering the shelter. Sensitivity, domesticity and warmth became the driving principles

  • Windows frame exterior views in a considered way, still offering a sense of enclosure.
    Windows frame exterior views in a considered way, still offering a sense of enclosure. Credit: Nicholas Worley
  • Non-institutional showering areas have a simple dignity.
    Non-institutional showering areas have a simple dignity. Credit: Nicholas Worley
  • The ‘private’ rear reception area looking through into the more public common room.
    The ‘private’ rear reception area looking through into the more public common room. Credit: Nicholas Worley
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‘Even someone who hasn’t lived through trauma would find walking into a room of 40 people daunting’, elaborates Anderson. To ease the transition of arrival, the scale of each space gradually increases, through the office, via a sitting-room, culminating in the large dining room-café. That the kitchen should be at the centre seems appropriate: in the old premises, Scott tells me, residents organically developed an arrangement which worked this way – the hearth as the centre of the home. 

Due to budgetary constraints, a challenge for the architects was to source robust, high-quality products, ideally at reduced cost, and offset this expenditure with a non-fussy, back-to-basics design. In the bathroom are classic, white Grestec tiles. Sturdy wooden chairs were sourced from a closing-down Nandos thanks to Hill Cross furniture. Manufacturer Altro donated Whiterock wall cladding and flooring free of charge, making it possible to include an attractive herringbone floor in the dormitories. In the main area is hardwearing Havwoods timber flooring.

The site – a former supermarket on a residential estate – came with significant constraints. Inevitably the scheme faced opposition from local residents, influenced by the stigma associated with homelessness. Architecturally, an unusually deep plan contributed to a dark interior, exacerbated by a lack of windows at the back where loading bays had been. From practicality as much as design, some elements of the retail premises were retained, including exposed ducts, cable trays and conduits. This lends an industrial, modern aesthetic to the place while creating easy maintenance access and avoiding a claustrophobic suspended ceiling. 

 

Axonometric showing the relation of public to private.
Axonometric showing the relation of public to private.

Within such shelters, maximum visibility is essential for safeguarding. Yet it is equally important for the wellbeing of residents – some of whom have spent time in foreign jails and refugee camps – not to feel imprisoned. The shelter is now a light-filled space with intelligent placement of windows and openings successfully balancing privacy and visibility. Scott had initially assumed that frosted windows would be unavoidable, but Anderson persuaded her otherwise: ‘If you’ve got nothing to hide, then let the neighbours look in’ she argues. ‘All they’ll see is people eating dinner – nothing to get worked up about.’

This strategy of openness has worked in the shelter’s favour. Since opening in June, formerly sceptical neighbours have observed a positive impact on the estate. The defunct loading bay is now a safely enclosed, pleasant, semi-outdoor space. There is lighting and increased footfall in the previously seedy back alley, and the affordable and cheery café has proved popular – as Scott tells me with satisfaction – even with some of the more vocal naysayers. As the architect explains: ‘Inviting the general public into the shelter simultaneously draws them into the debate about how to demystify homelessness’.

A job well done by Holland Harvey, but it doesn’t end there. The next phase of the project – should SFTS secure funding, product donations or the offer of pro-bono design work – is to convert the remaining part of the property into a small local shop – continuing engagement, debunking stereotypes and improving conditions for the homeless one coved skirting at a time. 

 

Credits

Tiles Grestec (internal) & Solus (external)
Flooring Havwoods (timber) & Altro
Lighting Tala
Windows Rationel
Kitchen fabricator Airedale
Cubicles Bushboard
Furniture Hillcross
Sanitaryware Sanceram

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