Kansas City’s nonprofits play a vital role in advocating for the social and economic well-being of the community’s most vulnerable residents. But what role does the built environment – the physical spaces occupied by nonprofits – play in aiding the missions of these organizations? And how can the design process help identify and support their long-term
goals and growth? You don’t have to look further than Brookside for the answer. With programming that covers a holistic continuum of care, The Children’s Place is a national leader in providing trauma-responsive care for children. Since its founding in 1978, the organization has supported the developmental and mental health needs of young survivors of abuse, neglect, and trauma.
In 2016, The Children’s Place hired HOK to explore its organizational goals and to develop criteria to select a potential new building that would allow its mission, staff, and children to flourish. Though the organization had grown substantially over nearly four decades, its space hadn’t grown with them. The first step in the design process didn’t involve sketches or floor plans. Instead, it focused on talking and dreaming. A visioning session included exercises that encouraged participants to identify the most important qualities for the space. Through this, the project objectives were illuminated: to create a welcoming, collaborative, and transformational environment where children and families feel safe, supported, valued, loved, healthy, and healed. “This was a truly collaborative and fun process,” said Ann Thomas, president and CEO of The Children’s Place. “For many of the children and families we serve, their lives have
been chaotic and unpredictable due to traumatic experiences. Having a space designed to meet their needs is a dream
– and what a difference an intentionally designed space makes to the staff, clients, and visitors.” Coupled with a deep dive into the organization’s’ goals and pain points, these exercises helped identify four primary goals that became part of the nonprofit’s new strategic vision document:
• Increase Visibility
• Provide Program Excellence
• Celebrate Culture
• Expand Services
These long-term priorities provided guiding principles that stakeholders used to weigh decisions against throughout the design process. During the visioning session, an adjacency activity allowed staff and board members to move potential spaces around like puzzle pieces, thinking strategically about programming. This simple exercise helped the design team prioritize specific adjacencies and new spaces. It also solidified that collaboration needs to be reinforced by the architecture. Classrooms, for example, were located directly next to the child and family therapy offices to increase collaboration among staff, clinicians, and teachers. View rooms with one-way mirrors were added to each classroom to enable therapists, teachers, and parents to observe a child’s behavior and strategize before they interact. Each classroom includes a direct connection to an outdoor learning space, and safety was prioritized with a separate bus drop-off entry for day treatment. Next, the design team conducted meetings with each user group. This informed both the practical square footage requirements and the overall aesthetic. Words like “welcoming,” “safe,” “inspired,” “healing,” and “hopeful” surfaced repeatedly in these conversations.
One consistent message across all user groups was the importance of the space feeling like a secure, healthy home for children who may not have had that experience. In response, each classroom includes a “front porch,” “living room,” “back porch,” and “backyard.” The “front porch” uses clear wayfinding strategies with simple colors and letters to help children of any age identify their home base. Inside the classroom, flexible zones for play and learning comprise the
“living room.” The “kitchen” includes a staff meal-prep area and child-height sinks to encourage autonomy. A small quiet zone inspired by the structure of a house is complete with a child-height window and door and gives children a place to decompress and compose themselves when feeling overwhelmed. The “back porch” surrounded by a wooden
fence creates a valuable outdoor learning environment. As with many homes, the backyard is a space for fun and activity. An expansive, private outdoor playground promotes dreaming, healing, and learning. And that signature bear
sculpture most Kansas Citians recognize from the Children’s Place’s former location on 59th Street? Although it didn’t
make the journey, the tradition is alive with a new bear outside the kids’ bus entry at the Rockhill Road location.
Since opening at the end of 2020, the nonprofit has been able to serve 30 percent more children and families. The interactive, user-centered design process helped ensure the creation of comforting space for vulnerable children.
“To have a light-filled, soothing space with child-friendly colors and an intentional layout created a calm, predictable,
and safe space,” said Thomas. “It’s the very kind of environment a child needs to experience to heal.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erin Nybo is an interiors practice leader at HOK, leading the design and delivery of
innovative, patient-centric healthcare facilities for the firm’s Kansas City studio. She
is active with IIDA Mid-America, Kansas City Sports Commission and Kansas City Area