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Steelcase Team Unveils Design Ideas for Well House

This dispatch was added by one of our Nonprofit Neighbors. It does not represent the editorial voice of The Rapidian or Community Media Center.

The Design Team from Steelcase has completed a pro bono project which will help Well House as it transitions from a shelter to permanent housing.
Underwriting support from:

To get involved, or for more information:

If you would like to get involved with Well House as a skilled (or skills-building!) volunteer, please contact Well House at 616-245-3910 or [email protected]  - ask for Therese Kent or Judi Buchman.

If you are interested in learning more about Encore, skills-based volunteering, or how to get your company team involved in the Vision to End Homelessness, please contact Teresa Zbiciak at the Volunteer Center at [email protected] or by calling 616-459-6281 ext. 664.

Ricky Biddle, Von Robinson, Mark Schoolmeester, and Hyun Yoo - The Design Team from Steelcase in front of the Inspiration Boards

Ricky Biddle, Von Robinson, Mark Schoolmeester, and Hyun Yoo - The Design Team from Steelcase in front of the Inspiration Boards /Ruby Miller

House Identities for Well House

House Identities for Well House /The Design Team at Steelcase

Representatives from Well House and The Volunteer Center take it all in.

Representatives from Well House and The Volunteer Center take it all in. /Ruby Miller

Read Part I: Steelcase Designers Offer their Skills to Well House

By: Teresa Zbiciak, Volunteer Center Program Assistant 


In the living room of an old house – one of three owned by Well House—five 4-foot-by-8-foot Inspiration Boards stand propped against walls, windows, and doorways.  A crowd of representatives from Well House and the Volunteer Center have gathered in front of them, curious and eager for an interpretation of the colorful layouts, lines, and diverse array of images.

The Inspiration Boards are the result of several months of pro bono design services that The Design Team at Steelcase has provided for Well House, helping the former shelter re-envision its living and work space.  The project has become somewhat of a flagship as the Volunteer Center works to significantly increase the number of skills-based volunteer opportunities in the community, particularly with organizations that provide housing, such as Well House.  

As housing and shelter providers in Grand Rapids address the complexities of a complete system overhaul, there is tremendous potential and need for innovation in order for the Vision to End Homelessness to come to fruition by 2014. That is why this successful pro-bono design project holds such promise.

“Rather than focusing in on some specific element or elements of the living spaces – we decided to think more broadly about the paradigm shift of an organization transforming from an emergency shelter to permanent housing,” Hyun Yoo, the Design Team’s lead designer explains.

The Design Team has worked diligently, synthesizing information from several visits and interviews with staff and residents, who had identified many opportunities to improve their use of space. 

 “What we really responded to was an interest in creating more of a campus-like feel,” says Hyun. “What we have provided here is not a specific directive, but more of tool that you can use to help you focus and think strategically about what you already have. It is something that you can return to as you identify new projects, so that you can be deliberate about the changes that you make.”

Key design principles guided the creation of a holistic, intuitive and organized layout and strong community identity. In the proposal, each house is given a new character, with a new purpose, creating a sense of community by providing space where people can gather together.

The design plan establishes specific functions for each house, and notates the natural flow of traffic to different “destinations”. The house with the big community kitchen becomes the Social House. Across the street, a few adjustments and some heavy lifting create a Quiet Commons for studying and laundry. Next door, administrative offices replace a children’s play room that is no longer as needed as it was when Well House was a shelter.

Peggy Smith, a Well House resident, is enthusiastic. “It just makes so much sense!”

Ruby Miller, former live-in staff member and current Board Chair, reflects, “It’s really fascinating to see how these design principles that are usually applied to a broader business world can be scaled to fit these houses.”

Well House director, Judi Buchman is inspired by “the power of thinking with a holistic concept that looks at Well House from the outside!  Their ideas don't seem dropped upon Well House, but are challenging us to take the concepts and make them on our own within a doable framework.  This encourages us to look at what we can do right now to address these issues. “

The designers share in their enthusiasm, and also express how beneficial the experience of creating the project had been for them. The team members rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to work together on a single project, particularly one where they could work towards such a specific goal.

 “Usually we have this research that tells us, statistically, this person exists – and so we design for that generalized abstracted data. In our everyday work, we don’t get the opportunity to respond to a real place with real individual people with all of their unique characteristics,” says designer Von Robinson. “It’s exciting to work on a project that can so directly shape the community.”

From here, Well House staff and residents can readily identify projects for moving forward based on the Design Team’s proposal. Well House is collaborating with the Volunteer Center to match volunteers with a spectrum of skills-based and traditional volunteer opportunities on United Way's Day of Caring and throughout the year. Well House is also looking to create an Encore Team to help create new partnerships within the community as a part of this exciting new venture for these organizations and towards the Vision to End Homelessness.

It is an exciting place to start.  

Disclosure: Teresa Zbiciak is a VISTA with the Volunteer Center at Heart of West Michigan United Way.

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