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The last place you expect to find a shelter is amidst a campus of soaring glass office towers. Even less so, as part of an Amazon HQ. But, that’s exactly where Graphite Design Group’s spirited Mary’s Place Family Shelter calls home. Nestled within an edifice adjacent to a 24-storey structure in downtown Seattle, the 5,853-square-metre organization, with room for some 300 occupants, not only neighbours but shares space with the tech giant.

Working in tandem with Mary’s Place, the Amazon Global Real Estate and Facilities team, Seneca Group and GLY construction, the designers — led by Peter Krech — were able to radically reimagine what a family shelter could be by occupying sections of eight floors in the company’s complex. The result is a striking temporary home that radiates joy and warmth in ways largely uncommon to the typology. It’s also strategically sited near crucial amenities (public transportation, for one) to help residences get back on their feet.

A graphic portal featuring a play of mid-century-inspired forms defines the entrance, providing a bold landmark while offering discretion and privacy for those within. Immediately off the street-facing entry, a welcoming lobby leads to a multipurpose and conference room that ground the sense of community that permeates throughout. This bold arrival, too, signals the vibrancy of the interior spaces that unfold across the centre’s many floors.

The designers ensured that the shelter — which caters primarily to families and children with medical conditions — was equally comfortable for guests of all ages. (It’s also dog-friendly.) To that end, a rich palette of OSB, polished concrete and calculated bursts of colour create a whimsical yet refined (not to mention durable) atmosphere in both public and private areas. Large spans of vinyl wallpaper were intended to evoke the notion of a warm blanket while acoustic panelling helps dampen noise.

Designed to accommodate short-term stays, the second storey contains 70 beds and 13 cribs flanking a communal area and shared washroom while the third to fifth floors are made for longer stays. Each of these levels is equipped with 56 beds, 13 cribs and 10 floor mats interspersed with intimate gathering areas and a core meeting place to foster a sense of both community and safety.

While the individual rooms are relatively spartan, the electric hues of orange bunk beds and multi-toned dividers (curtains for brief occupancy and doors for more extensive stays) couple with utilitarian shelving and storage to give each suite its sense of place. Charming wayfinding integrated into concrete underfoot also helps navigate the seemingly labyrinthian floor plates. The nearby gathering spots (“living rooms” as the designers refer to them) are positioned by the building’s many glazed expanses to offer long vistas outside and to establish an air of domesticity. An eclectic mix of furnishings — from upholstered loungers and bentwood seats to Adirondack chairs — further this homey ambiance.

A distinctly convivial approach continues into the upper levels. A clinic, marketplace, heat treatment room and other support services take prominence on the sixth floor. The seventh, meanwhile, is wholly dedicated to communal programs. Boasting a 15-table dining hall with bar seating along the windows and banquettes along the opposing wall as well as a humble interfaith prayer room and generous club space for kids, it’s one of the liveliest areas in the entire project.

At the shelter’s apex, a recreation room fitted with angular built-in OSB seating looks out towards a large green terrace. (Laundry and a teen room for older residents are located nearby.)

In a city where rising costs of living (due no doubt, in part, to Amazon’s entry) coupled with the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in nearly 12,000 people experiencing homelessness, Mary’s Place Family Shelter is a reminder that thoughtful and dignified temporary housing is achievable, even on a large scale, and that strategic partnerships can marry social equity with urban development. “When families have a safe environment in which to sleep and eat, they can better focus on getting out of homelessness,” explains the team at Graphite, “by becoming aligned with services available to support their unique situation.”

Mary’s Place also provides an important template for future initiatives, entirely shifting what these spaces can be and look like — warm, playful and inviting hubs that centre care, compassion and community at the very heart of a bustling metropolis. It’s a place anyone would be proud to call home.

This Family Shelter in Seattle Calls a Corporate Campus Home

Graphite Design Group brings a sense of joy and warmth to an innovative respite for those in need.

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