Aya is a word with many meanings. Found in ancient and modern languages around the world, it is a word almost always referencing beauty, resilience or protection. In Turkish mythology, Aya symbolizes the good soul, while in ancient Mesopotamia, Aya was a mother goddess. Naming your daughter Aya in Japan denotes she is beautiful or colorful. When the residents of southwest DC anointed their new short-term housing facility the Aya, they were referencing the African Adinkra word for a type of fern. In Adinkra, this fern represents endurance and resourcefulness. Like the human need for shelter, the word Aya is universal.
Among these many definitions, Aya also references an affordable housing project built by the District of Columbia in the southwest waterfront neighborhood. Aptly christened by neighbors, the Aya provides emergency housing for up to fifty families in need of immediate shelter. The Aya provides housing and wrap-around services for families in their time of need.
Unlike permanent supportive housing, the Aya is a temporary but immediately available housing solution intended to prevent a period of homelessness from occurring. Almost exclusively serving younger mothers with small children, the Aya is intended to keep families in need off the streets.
The program of the building is to provide small, safe and clean private rooms, and give families a dignified place to stay until they get back to a place they can call home.
The average stay is anticipated to be thirty to ninety days, but there are no mandatory limits on the duration. All of the short-term family housing buildings have places for children of all ages to play and do homework. Meals are served and adult education opportunities are present with the use of computer labs.
The Aya is just one of more than a dozen housing facilities constructed by the District of Columbia to battle homelessness. Between the years of 2016 to 2019, the District constructed a new short-term housing facility in each of the City’s eight wards. Through a program entitled Homeward DC, these new facilities complement the existing traditional affordable housing and permanent supportive housing facilities that already exist in the city. Since Homeward DC launched, the city has reduced family homelessness by 45 percent and overall homelessness by 11 percent. Preventing homelessness from starting is an important goal of the Homeward DC initiative. Though the chronic homelessness represents less than 15% of the general homelessness population, more than half of the funds devoted to fighting homelessness is used for their care. Emergency services often associated with chronic homelessness – emergency room visits, hospitalizations for medical or psychiatric care, rooms in detoxification facilities or nursing homes, and incarceration – are expensive and can be avoided by providing families in need with a safe, reliable, autonomous housing condition.
Each floor of the Aya is considered a unique neighborhood, with controlled access only for the families assigned to that floor. In this way, residents become familiar with the other occupants of the floor sharing information and childcare. A person not assigned to a particular floor would immediately be recognized by the residents of that floor, thus providing a strong sense of soft security for the families.
Each floor contains a shared community room and a mix of room sizes to accommodate families of different sizes. The rooms are configured to provide maximum flexibility with adjoining lockable doors in the party walls between the rooms. In this way, the building can serve everyone from a family of three to an extended family of ten or twelve.
In many ways, the Aya defines a new paradigm for the old housing shelter.
Homelessness is not one experience – it is a continuum. At its least extreme are people that spend a day or two in the shelter system. At its most extreme are the chronically homeless, people who have been homeless for a long time and suffer from a disabling condition. Almost all instances of homelessness are a response to a deficiency of affordable housing opportunities. By defining a new type of affordable housing prototypes, the Aya works to eliminate the initial onset of homelessness in the city.
Located on an isolated hospital campus near the Anacostia River, DC General was neither designed nor situated in the proper place to help its residents integrate back to their pre-homeless lives.
The building was continually plagued with management and security problems.
It was closed in 2001.
Over time, a stigma became associated with the facility leaving the residents feeling marginalized and forgotten. Many studies have shown that concentrating homeless services in a single remote and large location almost always results in negative connotations for institutionalized care.
It is far more effective and humane to provide multiple smaller and dispersed facilities to provide social services. These smaller facilities are more easily supported and integrated by a neighborhood, allowing residents the local services, stores, health care, schooling required without significant travel or time commitments.
The important aspect of the Homeward DC program was that no single facility would serve more than fifty families and that each ward would have only one facility. This allows neighborhoods existing serves to easily accommodate the new residents without stressing their capacity. From the perspective of a social services provider, it allows more flexibility in accommodating families allowing them to be placed in a facility near or in their original neighborhood. This allows these families to keep jobs and outside relationships with other friend and families.
Several researchers found that larger, more concentrated affordable housing developments were more likely than smaller developments to develop stigma and other problems. Other research has found that the impact on nearby property values tended to be positive when these subsidized households were located in wealthier neighborhoods that were generally appreciating in value.
Any new public housing project requires acceptance from the neighbors. Early, thoughtful and continuous community engagement was the key to integrating the Aya into the southwest waterfront neighborhood. Before a single line was drawn on paper, the Studio Twenty Seven Architecture | Leo A Daly team was introduced to an advisory team of local residents. Through monthly meetings and neighborhood walks, the architects and neighborhood residents were able to identify the most important and salient aspects of the local context and design a building that responded to context in all aspects of its design.
MASSING AND PROGRAM
We heard from the community their design to preserve green space, and to build taller as a means to save that green space. The community wanted a building that did not have a specific front door so that there was no back of house activity. They also wanted a clinic to remain on the site, as a small room where activities could occur, as well as wanting to keep the street trees and views to the Capitol intact from the Delaware Avenue.
The community brought to our attention such things as habitual walking patterns and how each building on I Street was elevated several feet from the top of the street to accommodate what was frequent small flooding prior to the installation of the 6th Street dike.
We listened to these comments and responded with a design solution that addressed neighborhood issues.
The southwest waterfront neighborhood in which the building is located is the most rapidly changing area in the city with new development filling every open lot available. Building taller and leaving the northern end of the site originally owned by the National Park Service open helps to preserve green space for residents and neighbors.
A green roof and small green gardens that occur at the terrace along the ziggurat facade imply a front lawn for each unit.
The boundaries of the new building stay within the footprint of an existing demolished structure, and in doing so preserve the open green area that occupies the north of the site. Rather than occupy the entire site, the massing of the building is pushed to the south to front the street. With less site occupied, the building grew from four to seven stories matching the height of its neighbor to the west, and planned future development to the east.
The new building yields in height to both the future housing development to the east and the Capitol Park Plaza Apartment building to the west. Care was taken to organize separate entrances to the Health Clinic and short-term family housing on the different faces of the building.
The building is intended to complement the developing skyline of southeast Washington DC while creating an optimal living experience for the tenants. The building now sits among a natural setting, mature streets form a canopy to the south and west while the open space to the north is complimented with a green roof and elevated gardens.
Ziggurats are an ancient archetypal building form in which each step in the building mass is slightly smaller than the step below. Almost always two to seven floors in height, the ziggurats of ancient times typically carried meaning as significant religious or cultural structures. While the Aya is a certainly a significant new structure in the District, in this case the ziggurat massing that defines the west façade is more a tailored response to site conditions and program requirements than an attempt to convey cultural significance.
Overall, the design concept for the Aya is a building that has no front and no back, and is tailored in its massing and façade treatment to respond to a different context along each side of the site. On the west, the site is bound by Delaware Avenue – one of L’Enfant’s original arterial streets – which radiates from the US Capitol. To allow the Aya to acknowledge this critical viewshed, as well as preserve the mature existing tree canopy that grow along the Street, the building is carved away – creating a ziggurat form.
The ziggurat treatment also provides abundant natural daylight to each of the dwelling units. Each step in massing allows for a small garden terrace for the individual dwellings. Each garden can be thought of as individual lawn in front of the dwelling unit or ‘house’.
FLOODPLAIN AND ITS HISTORY
This area of the City abuts the waterfront and has a history of flooding. The flooding issue was resolved with the implementation of a dike in the late twentieth century, but the remnant of flooding control remains in a two-foot plinth at the base of all the buildings. The Aya replicates this two foot plinth a as a gesture to the history of the neighborhood. This elevation of the first floor provided a design opportunity. Because there is a clinic in the basement of the facility, the elevated floor allowed for the introduction of a continuous clerestory allowing natural light to flood into the clinic below.
Below – 2’ tall plinth upon which all buildings on Eye street sit on or above to protect them from flooding.
COLOR AS PLACE
The building program requested seven to ten housing units per level with community rooms, laundry facilities, monitoring stations, and private and family bathrooms on each floor. The designers added outdoor play areas on each level to avoid forcing children to travel on elevators to reach outdoor play space below.
The ground floor includes a dining area, computer room, exam room, and administrative areas. The sub-level below the ground floor houses the clinic. The building is seven stories tall constructed on a post- tensioned concrete structure to avoid placing columns that would obstruct views in the corners of the ziggurat shaped massing.
In addition to an on-site clinic, all inhabitants have access to interior and exterior spaces on every floor as well as community rooms and private spaces. Care was taken in the development of the first floor plinth to maximize natural light to the clinic space below grade while protecting the building from water and air infiltration.
There is a dynamism present in the floor plans as you move around the building. With the uniquely articulated facades, natural light flows into the building and into every exterior play space on each floor.
The concept is a building that has no front or back, and responds to the arterial street viewshed thru a ziggurat form that preserves the existing tree canopies, allowing for maximum daylighting views to each of the small dwelling units. Each elevation of the building is uniquely different; the glassy north facade contains community rooms on each floor that look out towards Capitol, the dynamic south facade frames the entrance to the health clinic, the calm east facade contains screened outdoor play spaces on each floor, and the small green roofs at the terrace along the stepped west facade imply a front lawn for each unit.
Without shelter we are fearful.
The Aya is a rapid rehousing project that provides immediate shelter for families that would otherwise find themselves homeless and on the streets. In providing shelter, it removes fear. No child deserves to live in fear of finding shelter. No child deserves to grow up with the trauma of chronic homelessness.
While a study prepared by the department of Housing and Urban Development in December of 2018 estimated that there were still as many as 53,000 families experiencing homelessness in America on any given evening, the overall trendline is decreasing. The number of people experiencing homelessness in families with children declined by two percent between 2017 and 2018, and by 23 percent between 2007 and 2018. In 2018, more than 180,000 people in families with children were experiencing homelessness, and most people experiencing homelessness in families with children were staying in sheltered locations (91%).
Even further good news is that a large part of the decline in family homelessness since 2007 has occurred among people staying in rapid rehousing projects like the Aya.
The Studio Twenty Seven Architecture | Leo A Daly team wanted the Aya to provide more than simple shelter. We wanted a facility that complimented the neighborhood, a building with dignity, a place that let children be children. Working with the District of Columbia under the Homeward DC program, the design team was empowered to design a building that broke the institutional mold that taints other affordable housing projects and prevents both the facility and its occupants from being accepted by their neighborhood communities. City staff also established an extensive neighborhood engagement process so that from the beginning the design of the building and the site would be compatible with the thoughts and wishes of the neighbors.
Lastly, we were guided by the insight of Jean-Michel Giraud, President and CEO of Friendship Place. Friendship Place is a housing service provider for people experiencing homelessness in the DC metropolitan region. Since 2019 the work of Jean-Michel and Friendship Place has prevented homelessness for over 1,400 people and served more than 3,300 people overall. Jean-Michel encouraged the design team to consider the design of the building from the perspective a young child just arriving to the Aya. They are frightened and have most likely recently experienced
a traumatic experience as they were told they could no longer return to a place they had thought of as home.
How could the design of our building quickly help to calm a frightened child?
How can the Aya help ease a child’s anxiety and help them get back to just being a child?
Entering the reception area of the Aya, children find a calm, clean, open and light filled space.
Decorated with art from the other residents, the reception is a physical space devoid of mystery with memories of a childhood.
Every floor has its own indoor community room and outdoor covered area for the children.
Playtime programming reduces potential trauma by engaging youth cognitively, physically, and emotionally, allowing children to build healthy relationships with caring adults and other children.
More than just providing shelter, the Aya is a healing force in the lives of children.
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Originally designed by designed Nicholas T. Haller in 1903, the building has been comprehensively redeveloped five times in its one hundred and seventy year history. Prior to being adaptively reused as a one hundred and fourteen unit housing community in 2018, the building has seen stints as a coal sales office, horse stable, car garage and cardboard box factory. The Chapman Coal Company Garage a...…Read More