Editorial: Synergies for Social Good

Designed by Thier + Curran Architects, the Richmond Hill HUB, north of Toronto, combines seniors’ housing with a youth shelter and drop-in centre.
Designed by Thier + Curran Architects, the Richmond Hill HUB, north of Toronto, combines seniors’ housing with a youth shelter and drop-in centre.

Architects are often known for their skill in optimizing client programs, and Hamilton-based Thier + Curran Architects (TCA) is no exception. Community-building synergies are behind a pair of their recent projects: a social service oriented development in Hamilton, and another in Richmond Hill.

For over 50 years, the non-profit Hamilton Good Shepherd has provided services for the area’s homeless population. In the mid-2000s, the Catholic Diocese offered it a piece of vacant land in an up-and-coming neighbourhood to build a women’ s shelter.

TCA was hired to design the shelter, but after preliminary analysis of the large lot, they felt there was a moral obligation to develop more. “We could build three more buildings on the property without compromising anything, and it would actually be a nicer development and better for the community,” recalls Bill Curran, MRAIC.

It took 12 years of fundraising and approvals to realize that vision, accompanied by “horrendous NIMBYism, and an OMB hearing full of neighbours saying ‘we don’t want those people here’,” says Curran. One of the advantages of creating a larger development meant that this process only had to be navigated once—rather than through multiple consultations if the property was built up more incrementally. Moreover, “ there are 6,000 families on the waiting list for affordable housing in Hamilton,” says Curran. Creating more units helped with addressing this demand.

In the end, Good Shepherd Square includes a courtyard building with a pair of shelters: one for older women with mental issues, and another for domestic abuse victims. A shared services wing includes community outreach spaces such as a chapel, rooms for drop-in counseling, and a medical clinic. Two eight-storey subsidized apartment blocks front onto the main street, one tailored for families and the other for seniors. Another building, a three-storey apartment, is yet to come.

In the case of the Richmond Hill HUB, TCA teamed up with a contractor to respond to a call for design-build proposals to create a seniors’ apartment tower. After winning the project, the client from the Region of York approached the team to ask if a youth shelter and drop-in centre could be added.

It was a “a shot-gun wedding” between programs, says Curran—but they found a way to spatially separate the youth functions from the seniors’ centre. They tucked the youth shelter towards the back of the building, and created indoor and outdoor amenity spaces for the seniors on the third floor.

Similar to Good Shepherd, the pairing of programs helped to address the region’s pressing social service needs. TCA had support from the mayor and council in facing neighbours’ concerns; again, those battles only needed to be fought once.

In many cases with social service projects, Curran says, NIMBY concerns dissipate once a project is up and running, particularly if care has been taken with the architecture. “A critical part is that it must not look institutional. It must be home,” says Curran. The façades for Good Shepherd Square use high-quality clay brick, and patterning that matches the scale of adjacent single-family homes. For the Richmond Hill HUB, TCA worked to break down the scale of the 10-storey building for it to integrate more closely with present and future development.

Working with tight budgets of $160 and $180 per square foot respectively, TCA aimed to combine challenging programs, while creating buildings that are home-like inside, and form quiet background buildings from the outside.

“Good Shepherd’s motto is  ‘faith in people,’ and a lot of that is about dignity,” says Curran. “Architecture really does impact people—it affects their quality of life and their feeling of self-worth that they live in a nice place.” As a result of that sensitive outlook, Hamilton and Richmond Hill have new structures that, despite their eccentricities, are turning out to be good neighbours.