Canadian Architect

Feature

Phoenix Rising

A former water pumping station is transformed into a village-like transitional housing and job-training facility for homeless youth.

March 9, 2017
by Stephanie Calvet

Temporary residences for homeless youth are arrayed along a sunny interior street in a new project in downtown Toronto. Photo: Ben Rahn / A-Frame

Temporary residences for homeless youth are arrayed along a sunny interior street in a new project in downtown Toronto. Photo: Ben Rahn / A-Frame

TEXT Stephanie Calvet

LGA Architectural Partners (LGA) is a champion for socially innovative architecture and is well known in Toronto for its not-for-profit client portfolio. One of the firm’s longstanding relationships is with the local Eva’s Initiatives for Homeless Youth. They’ve designed three facilities for the organization—the first, a transitional housing facility called Eva’s Phoenix, opened in 2003, the second, a 32-bed emergency shelter called Eva’s Satellite, was completed in 2009.

Last year, a redevelopment in Liberty Village meant that Eva’s Phoenix had to vacate its location in a renovated industrial warehouse. In partnership with city stakeholders, the facility found a new home: a 1930s art deco municipal waterworks, in a gentrifying area on the western edge of downtown. LGA designed this newest iteration, too. It includes housing for 50 residents making their way from homeless-ness to independent living, as well as work-shops to train them with job-ready skills.

The building’s non-descript exterior has few windows, but the interior couldn’t be more different. Envisioned as a neighbourhood within a building, Eva’s Phoenix is light, bright and uplifting. The residential area consists of a sky-light-topped triple-height atrium, under which ten townhouse-style units line an internal street. Stoop-like entries to each unit provide a sheltered-space-cum-transition-zone leading to ground floor living and common areas; on the second floor, each townhouse has five bedrooms. Atop the townhouses are offices for meetings and counseling, while a deepened basement accommodates a full-service commercial print shop for employment training.

Temporary residences for homeless youth are arrayed along a sunny interior street in a new project in downtown Toronto. Photo: Ben Rahn / A-Frame

Temporary residences for homeless youth are arrayed along a sunny interior street in a new project in downtown Toronto. Photo: Ben Rahn / A-Frame

To create the streetscape-like interior, LGA worked with the municipal planning department to devise alternative solutions to building code requirements. In particular, light models were used to understand and maximize the amount of borrowed light each bedroom would capture. In doing so, there was much fine-tun-ing to balance face-to-face unit separation, room sizes, openness and privacy. Best understood in section, the building is conceived as a series of layers, with the most public spaces at the edges and the most private areas protected inside. Spaces are carefully calibrated to establish the right balance of openness and privacy. “The layering and interconnected spaces improve safety, visibility and audibility, while also contributing to a non-institutional feeling,” says LGA partner and co-founder Dean Goodman.

The character of the former waterworks comes through at strategic moments, where existing Douglas fir, brick and steel are left exposed. These are paired with simple concrete and paint-ed drywall, in calming tones. The design also includes future-proofing moves like an extended elevator shaft and additional reinforcing structure, opening the possibility of eventually adding a fourth floor to house Eva’s headquarter offices.

With this design, Eva’s and LGA achieve much more than the creation of a much-needed youth shelter and programming. Eva’s Phoenix is a real-world ecosystem that is safe and home-like. It welcomes at-risk youth to build their social muscles and develop life skills as a community within a community. Its very presence in a busy downtown area makes a bold statement about the kind of city we want to build, and how architects can continue to influence urban diversity and integration in meaningful, holistic ways. Compared to typically institutional designs, this typology’s sensitive approach better enables disenfranchised youth to navigate the gulf between isolation and inclusion—and, one hopes, to thrive.

Stephanie Calvet is a Toronto-based architect and writer.