The Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) in Texas has worked hard over the past eight years, providing essential services 24/7 to more than double the number of people it was designed to accommodate. That chronic overuse, compounded by a persistent lack of maintenance, has led to the failure of several systems in recent years. Symptoms of operational strain, such as excessive moisture from the overtaxed men’s showers and a related foundering of the exhaust system, have festered for long periods and are just now being addressed by the building’s owner, the City of Austin.
Designed by local firm LZT Architects to sleep 100 men per night, ARCH experienced a much heavier demand than that after opening in April 2004. To make room for additional clients, Front Steps, the nonprofit group that operates the facility, has incrementally converted ancillary spaces to provide more space for people to sleep on floor mats. Currently, 215 men sleep at the shelter each night while another 50 are reportedly turned away. Women may use the facility during the day, but do not sleep there at night.
During daylight hours, as many as 700 individuals—also double the maximum originally intended—walk through the front door to partake of services offered by 10 different social agencies. The crowded conditions have contributed to higher-than-expected noise levels, particularly in the lobby where the floor is concrete and the long south wall is composed of tall glass panels. While acoustical ceiling tiles originally specified for the space were installed, according to the architects, other sound-dampening panels recommended by the design team’s acoustical consultant were not included in the $5 million project.
The year after completion, ARCH was among the AIA Committee on the Environment’s 2005 Top Ten Green Projects. Several factors contributed to the shelter’s recognition for sustainable design and to its LEED Silver certification, such as its urban setting on a brownfield site formerly occupied by a gas station, and its efficient stack-cast, tilt-frame concrete construction. The architects describe the project as “packing a lot of program” into 28,000 square feet on three levels.
The exposed concrete structure, says Murray Legge, AIA, design architect at LZT, represents part of the firm’s response to city officials’ request for a tough building. He suggests that the assemblage of highly durable materials has held up well considering the harsh treatment of the building over eight years.
Indeed, a recent tour of ARCH offered numerous examples of the beating it has taken from perpetual overcrowding and the incessant flow of destitute people. (Eighty percent self-identify as having mental health problems or drug or alcohol dependencies, according to Mitchell Gibbs, the director of development and communications for Front Steps.) Repairs throughout the building, budgeted at $685,000, are more than the $100,000 spent annually on maintenance. Repairs began late last year and were still ongoing as of press time. Crews are replacing the tile floor in the men’s shower room, as well as a moisture membrane beneath the floor. In addition, taxpayers are paying for a new HVAC system for the women’s restroom and improvements to the building’s rainwater-collection system. The rainwater system was affected by a host of variables, such as a general contractor, installer, and operations staff that was unfamiliar with the system installation and maintenance, and debris that washed off the roof and clogged the filtration system over the years.
Because the client asked for a LEED-certified building, says Herman Thun, AIA, LZT’s president and CEO, the design included several sophisticated systems that demand a requisite level of knowledge to properly operate and maintain. The architects say that the facility’s staff relied on the general contractor during the first year for some of the day-to-day maintenance, even tasks as routine as changing filters in the HVAC system. “That was an issue from the beginning that contributed to the problems,” Legge says. It wasn’t until two years after the shelter’s opening, according to public records obtained by the Austin American-Statesman, that four maintenance staff were hired. That number was doubled to eight in 2011. The lack of maintenance affected the building’s performance: The point-source water heaters and solar hot-water preheat systems require periodic flushing, but this did not occur on schedule at first, and, as a result, calcium deposits accumulated in the units and caused damage, Legge says. He also notes that poor maintenance led to debris clogging roof scuppers, resulting in standing water that then damaged a portion of the roof.
The architects are most proud of the building’s transparency, which helps people inside to orient themselves using views to the outside while providing interior spaces with ample daylighting, as well as the building’s visibility within the heart of the city, instead of being hidden away somewhere at the fringes. Both of these aspects of the design, they assert, support the municipality’s dedication to giving its homeless residents convenient access to social services and creating a shelter with an inviting street presence.
Stephen Sharpe, Hon. AIA, is the former editor of Texas Architect. He writes about architecture from Austin, Texas.