Designing Refuge

“It was the first time since I have been here that I felt like I had a purpose”

– Robyn



Cedi building her design for a mobile women’s shelter

So much has happened the last 6 months that I am never sure where to start. However today it is clear that I need to share our experience in the San Francisco county Women’s Jail #2. I feel this way because it so clearly demonstrates why architects need to engage the people they are working as collaborators instead of end users.


As some of you know I have been working with the 5 Keys Charter School to design a School on Wheels (starting construction in May!). However, we are also engaged to adapt another  municipal bus to be a women’s shelter. Prior to starting this project, I did not know that women are often released from jail in the middle of the night and have no safe place to go. They spend the night on the street, find shelter that may not be safe, or get bombarded with drug dealers and pimps before they even get a chance to start figuring out their life after jail. Many women have written to the sheriff about this issue and they along with the 5 Keys Charter school has responded by asking us to transform a donated municipal bus into a comfortable refuge for women the night they are released from jail.


Now last I checked I have never been in jail nor have I had to sleep a night on the streets. Frankly, what do I know about the needs of a woman who is hoping to start again fresh with little to no resources but the clothes on her back the night she was arrested. So we decided to facilitate a 3-day and consecutive 2 day workshop at County Jail #2 in San Francisco with over 60 women to develop a design that will best meet their needs.  The workshop used a number of different design tools to explore what spaces of resource and safety would look like to the women who will be using this intimate place of refuge. We tried out some new stuff like doing a full scale mock up with just our bodies. We also worked with artist Ana Teresa Fernandez to explore ideas of pattern making in the project.  We are hoping to work with Ana on both buses to develop an exterior expression that integrates her social justice work and is responsive to the community we are serving.


With so many women we needed not just Ana’s efforts as a volunteer but those of the following amazing women who continue to support this essential work: Abigail Hammett, Kelly Gregory, Sameena Sitabkhan , Taylor Dearinger, Cristina Rossi and Jess Pauly. Jess along with our intern Zoe Parsigian were there every single day.

Now I assumed they would want beds and a plush comfy space but what we discovered is that this is not at all what they desired. Instead we learned about the need for a place to make a call, get access to the internet, some alternative clothing that was comfortable( sweats or leggings preferred) and to my surprise, recliners! They wanted the space above all to be clean and safe. Beds we not a priority nor was a shower. They asked for mirrors and toiletries to freshen up in order to meet the world and the challenges they know all to well.

It was a great week and we got so much information that we will spend this week just coding and analyzing the data before we get going on the design. We will be looking for funding for the construction of this space so feel free to share this great start with others. We already know this new prototype is needed in many other cities like Los Angeles. We hope this small space of transition will make some difference in decreasing recidivism and provide these and other amazing women with a better chance at getting on their feet.

I want to thank the staff of the 5 Keys Charter School  and CJ #2: Patricia Richard, Captian Fisher, Angie Wilson,  Marcela.Espino, Joanna Hernandez, Maria Cornejo, Jackie Gordon
Terye Lewis, Arly Wagner, Leandra Martin and the deputies on staff for making our largest workshop ever possible. Finally the biggest thank you to all the women who participated in SF County Jail #2 for their support and amazing design work on this project!




Cedi presenting her design ideas


Kayla presenting her design for a honeycomb skylight

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