The Latest Wave of LEED Buildings: Homeless Shelters

By Christopher Wallace

Mock-up of the new shelter, designed by Eddie Bello with the McMillan Pazdan Smith architecture firm
As anyone who has volunteered (or been served) in a soup kitchen can attest, they’re typically not a place that you want to spend an extended amount of time. Homeless shelters are designed as a stop-gap; a helping but temporary hand for those in need until they can get their feet back on the ground.

Unfortunately, the majority of these kitchens/dormitories across the country have bleak environs. Whether they are government or independently run, budgets are small. The buildings themselves are often reused space from churches or warehouses that have already out-served their initial purpose. Under deathly fluorescent light, on broken-springed mattresses in a windowless room, finding hope can be a struggle.

It wasn’t until a friend sent me a story about a new homeless shelter opening in Charleston, South Carolina that I stopped and thought about any of this. My first reaction after a little more research was, “Why does any homeless shelter have a $6 million building budget?”

Then I checked myself. Those of us in the green community constantly eschew the virtues of an upfront investment that pays itself back in time through energy savings. Why shouldn’t a homeless shelter follow those same principles? Furthermore, (hopefully) the generally bright decor of most green buildings serves as an inspiration and instills pride and motivation in those who stay there.

Charleston’s new shelter, is being built and will be operated by nonprofit Crisis Ministries. The structure will feature rainwater collection, LED lighting and vaulted ceilings with carefully placed windows and awnings to maximize winter heating and summer cooling. The building committee is shooting for a silver LEED certification for the 28,000 square foot building.

It turns out Charleston isn’t home to the first shelter to go green. The Austin (Texas) Resource Center for the Homeless boasts the distinction of being the first LEED-certified shelter. The $5 million, 25,000 square foot building was built largely using concrete mixes with flyash (a coal-fired power plant byproduct) instead of Portland cement.

Up the road in Dallas, a shelter called ‘The Bridge’ has already demonstrated the tangible positive effects a green approach can have. Lauded by the American Institute of Architects with their 2009 National Housing Award, the crime rate in the surrounding neighborhood is down 18 percent since its 2008 opening.

Built atop an unused brownfield site in central Dallas, the building features a green roof over the dining room, a central atrium courtyard and graywater recycling. Perhaps most significant are the numerous art installations throughout the building, created by local artists. By bringing culture and creativity into the shelter, The Bridge constantly emphasizes the connection its users have with society outside, and vice versa.

Other progressive states like Colorado and California have also led the charge. The Boulder Shelter for the Homeless includes an array of rooftop solar panels, numerous skylights, and the same windows, plumbing, and appliances that any green-minded builder would include in their own home. Wooden beams and handrails are a stark contrast to the cold concrete of most urban shelters.

Likewise, the East Oakland Community Project’s Crossroads facility in California breaks the typical shelter mold. With its funky architecture and color, Crossroads looks more like a sleek new corporate headquarters than a shelter. Opened in 2008, Crossroads overcame funding challenges from naysayers who thought the proposed building was too nice. As executive director Wendy Jackson told the New York Times, many homeless people suffer from disease, including H.I.V., diabetes, and asthma. A healthy building gives them a chance to heal.

Even in progressive, green-thinking havens like Austin, Boulder, and Oakland, the thought of investing in buildings to be used by people in the neediest conditions can surprise some. There’s a pervasive stigma that many of the homeless utilize government benefits and handouts and will never repay that debt to society.

When they’re stuck in an over-crowded, bleak shelter, the way out can be difficult. Waking up to sunlight in a healthy environment can change that, not to mention the programs and motivated staff that come along with creating buildings everyone can take pride in. If even a deep south city like Charleston is taking this step, it can’t be long before we see the green shelter trend emerging in even more unexpected locales. That’s a change we can all take pride in.

Christopher Wallace is Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Amsterdam Printing, a leading provider of personalized pens, promotional pens, and other personalized items such as imprinted apparel and mugs and customized calendars.

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