Homeless get hi-tech shelters

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The Independent Online
THE DECOR is not the kind usually found in a winter shelter for homeless people: brightly coloured walls that double as pigeon holes and tray racks, individual sleeping "domes" that can be wheeled around, and canopies lit from above.

The assumption that a temporary cold weather shelter, by its very nature, must be utilitarian and spartan, has been turned on its head by six of Britain's most avant garde design companies.

Working to a competition brief drawn up by Crash, the construction and property industry charity for the single homeless, each company has brainstormed its way to a highly original take on how 1,000 sq ft of office space can be transformed into a shelter that is attractive, user-friendly, cheap, and easy to assemble.

Around pounds 4m a year is made available under the Government's Rough Sleepers' Initiative for winter shelters, which provide more than 450 beds in London, Cambridge and Bristol. Crash is instrumental in finding empty buildings which can be loaned over the winter months and quickly converted into safe and secure shelters, often using materials and labour donated or provided by construction companies at cost price.

Most open on 1 December and are run by charities for the homeless who provide resettlement advice and medical help.

The next step will be to put the ideas into practice by incorporating elements from all the designs, and in particular the winning entry from Islington based company, Spaced Out, into next year's shelters.

Naomi Cleaver, managing director of Echo Design Agency, who came up with the competition idea, said: "There is no reason why the environments that provide refuge for people who are physically or emotionally vulnerable should be bland, boring and depressing. The problem is not lack of budget but of lack of vision."

The acid test will be what shelter residents make of attempts to redesign their living environments, but initial feedback from three homeless people on the competition designs on show at the Battle Bridge Centre in Kings Cross (see panel, in which they give star ratings to various systems), promised food for thought. "This should have been done years ago," said Terry Gavalli, 25, who has stayed in three winter shelters since he lost his job four years ago. "It gets away from the cold, institutional feeling that puts a lot of people off going to shelters."

Billy, 23, who has stayed in nearly every London hostel since he moved down from Glasgow in 1991, said: "I think it is really good; at least we know we are being thought of and it makes you feel important to have a place to stay that you can be proud of."

Terry Smith, 19, who has been in and out of hostels since he left local authority care three years ago, was convinced that more private space and bright colours "would make the place more lively and comfortable".

Last year nearly half of those who stayed in winter shelters moved on to more settled accommodation.

"Almost by definition the buildings themselves are dismal places, vacated by previous occupants and awaiting redevelopment," said Tom Biddlecombe, director of Crash. "The surroundings in which people live while they are in a shelter can have a great boost to morale and help in the transition from a shelter to a home."

Only three of the designs on show have been developed into prototype models but all six use strong colours and some have replaced the standard plaster board wall dividers, donated by the building trade and thrown out when the shelters are closed, with reusable and affordable high tech materials.

The Spaced Out designers came up with a wall made from transluscent hard plastic screens and lit from behind by strip lights covered in multi-coloured gel. They hope that one of the country's big plastic companies will donate the panels, which are low cost and easy to clean and store.

"Bedrooms in the shelters often don't have windows so we used coloured lighting to make the room more interesting," said Zach Pulman of Spaced Out. The company also produced designs for a hanging shower closet and an "information wall" perforated with circular pigeon holes into which rolled up messages can be stuck.

Another of the entrants, Jam, recently won a commission to refurbish the Ministry of Sound nightclub and has run workshops at a homeless hostel on designing furniture from materials such as traffic cones and used camera film.

Their "conceptual" response to the competition proved quite controversial. "Crash was making bedrooms that looked like cells and measured around 4ft by 8ft and we wanted to redefine the possibilities," said Jamie Anley of Jam. The outcome was a mini-dome assembled from soundproof, insulated hard foam "petals" that could be wheeled around at will.

"On the streets the homeless have a very strong sense of community, but as soon as they get into shelters they are put into little rooms, so what we wanted to do was recreate a village kind of feel," said Mr Anley.

Paul Daly's modular approach, with blocks of six bedrooms built into the living space, provoked a mixed reaction from the panel.

They approved of his "airlock" entry system with transparent doors but didn't like the "closed in feel" to the windowless bedrooms.

David Connor's brightly coloured panels, easily assembled to create various living spaces, were popular with the panel who lamented the "dullness" of today's winter shelters.

But they thought his mobile-style sculpture was "nasty" and would be destroyed in hours.

Spaced Out *****

The bedroom unit is comprised of plastic panels, coloured lighting and foam cushions behind the bed which allow it to double as a sofa. Other features included a message wall and a kitchen wall with decorative cut- outs which double as a tray rack.

The homeless people's panel's view:

Terry Smith: "It looks creative and futuristic. The information wall is unusual and interesting. I'm not sure about the tray wall. It could get a bit messy."

Terry Gavalli: "The bed doubling as a sofa is a really good idea. I think people would respect this kind of space because the old rooms are so dismal and when you come in off the street you want to feel happy and warm."

Billy: "I think it is brilliant, the lighting and modern design are really attractive. I think it could work really well and I reckon they should go for it."

Waugh Thistleton **

The only architects in the competition stuck to a basic approach using standard Crash plasterboard to create small individual bed spaces that can be build up into bigger structures.

The panel's view:

Terry Smith: "They would need to make it a bit bigger. There's nowhere to put anything. You could only use it for sleeping."

Terry Gavalli: "It's too plain and needs to be wider. You could just about fix a clothes holder onto the wall, but you would knock it over when you got up. The Crisis shelter has much bigger rooms that are shared between two or three people but at least there you have a sense of space."

Billy: "It's like a prison cell without a window. It's too claustrophobic to stay in and do something like writing a letter when you want to be alone."

Jam *

A mini tent-like dome assembled from "petal" sections made of hard reuseable foam with a clear perspex section at the top. The concept is that people would be able to move their domes around and recreate a street community.

The panel's view:

Terry Smith: "Too cramped. Somebody must have been taking a pill when they designed this. When you go into a hostel you want to live like a normal person - not like a street person."

Terry Gavalli: "This is a joke. No one's going to stay in it; it's like a rabbit hutch. There's no privacy."

Billy: "They could be used outside by people like new age travellers instead of tents because they keep the heat in and are environmentally friendly."

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