City Life After Corona: Housing

Reimagining Shelter

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west-view-sm56726 · City Life After Corona: Housing
Marvel Architects recently performed a CPSD Masterplan on the 30th Street Shelter in New York City for DDC, where four primary principles in homeless shelter design were developed, and are presently being employed.
11 Sep 2020 All, Research, News


In cities like NYC, affordable housing is in short supply and vulnerable populations face a multitude of roadblocks when trying to find places that are affordable, accessible, and safe—this pandemic has further highlighted this growing inequality. The proposal addresses the needs of people experiencing homelessness during this time, finding ways to safely connect through communal activities during quarantine, and the power of affordable housing as a means of recovery.



In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Urban Design Forum launched City Life After Coronavirus, a digital program convening Fellows and international experts to document global responses to the current crisis and to strategize a road to recovery for New York City. In April, we released a Call for Ideas to our network soliciting a broad range of submissions that envision how urban planning and design should change in the wake of Covid-19 as we strive to build a more just city for all New Yorkers. We are featuring some of the most compelling ideas in a series of reflections and proposals about diverse topics like education, community engagement, and mobility. Explore the full Gallery of Urban Ideas here.




by Jonathan J. Marvel, Tim Fryatt, and Ishita Gaur


Homeless shelters are an integral part of NYC’s social infrastructure. At best, they provide a safe and effective transition-point services for New Yorkers in crisis to find permanent housing solutions. At their worst, they exacerbate despair and promote victimization, becoming places to avoid for fear of safety, places which incite community outrage.

Shelters by design are dense temporary housing models that provide access to a safe bed, food, and health and social services. Best practices pre-pandemic focused on increased interaction in social spaces to encourage self-supporting inspirational environments, where clients are active stakeholders in their own success. Caseworker offices are often clustered together to ensure maximum interaction between client and social worker. Dining and lounge areas encourage close social interactions.

But these same shelter design elements have proved challenging during the pandemic. Some shelters have been compelled to relocate their populations to hotels. This is made possible due to the decline in hotel room usage. This model has helped ensure client safety from the coronavirus, but runs counter to City objectives to end hotel sites, as stated in the 2017 “Turning the Tide Against Homelessness in NYC,” and in the 2019 “Journey Home,” the six-point action plan to end street homelessness.

It is expected due to coronavirus and its related economic recession, that the already rising homeless population will spike further. To avoid the need for adding an excessive amount of new shelters, it is imperative that existing shelters improve their efficacy to reduce the duration of client stays, by effectively transitioning clients into permanent housing sooner.

We have a legal and ethical obligation to ensure the marginalized homeless population is not adversely affected by coronavirus more than it already has been. Housing is always the goal, but the interim emergency step of shelter is essential to reduce the homelessness crisis.

In thinking of Urban Design Forum’s “City Life After Coronavirus,” we first need strategies for safely repopulating homeless shelters while pandemic health concerns persist. It is imperative these are cost effective and functional measures. Beyond this immediate need, we know whenever public dollars are spent on shelters, there is an opportunity and moral obligation to stretch those dollars.

Too often shelter improvements have been piecemeal responses to emergencies, without considering, nor helping, resolve longer term goals. To this end we offer the following design guidelines outline, organized under four essential shelter design principles, which address the new concerns for sanitation and health, while also promoting best new practices for shelter design. Marvel Architects is already working with several of our clients to pilot these changes.


Multiple separate entries allow for minimum overlap with clients entering and leaving the shelter. Providing outdoor plantings, furniture, and markings can ensure social distancing while waiting.


Improve Security

For and from Clients, Perceived and Actual

  1. Provide one-way traffic entrances where possible. This ensures minimum overlap with clients waiting for security and clients leaving the shelter facility, improving both health and security.
  2. Reconsider admission timing sequences and spaces to eliminate exterior lines on sidewalk. Where possible, provide outdoor plantings, furniture, and markings to ensure social distancing.
  3. Dedicate secure and private outdoor client spaces for improved health. This space can be used for recreation, as well as setting up safe caseworker meeting spaces.
  4. Incorporate touch-less client entry and digital census technologies to ensure less time and interaction between staff and client.


Enhance Services

Reduce Barriers to Success, Increase Shelter Efficiency

  1. Provide a mix of spaces, including potential quarantine spaces and Covid-19 testing services.
  2. Improvement and expansion in shelter services and their delivery including housing, legal, and employment services, health and wellness services, and computer and educational services.
  3. Where possible, encourage the use of technologies such as video calls through tablets to provide safe access to case workers. Streamline appointments and routinely clean all equipment used during interaction.
  4. Create a safe way for clients to interact with caseworkers. Larger waiting areas for safe social distancing, and private meeting rooms. This ensures the case worker’s office where they spend most time is not where the interaction with a client happens. Where possible, located these meeting rooms close to windows and in places with good ventilation. Alternatively, use 6’ table sizes or plexiglass screens to separate.
  5. Reschedule the dining system timing into additional phases, limiting the number of people in dining rooms at one time.


Design for Dignity

Change Mindsets

  1. Promote hygienic practices by providing sanitation stations, Infrared Fever Screening Systems (IFSS), and bold signage and communications employing best practices in health precautions such as social distancing floor markings.
  2. Increase seating spacing in public areas, limit number of beds per dorm and provide health and privacy screens
  3. Improve Architectural finishes to be anti-microbial. Employ touch-less features at doors, elevators, lighting, and plumbing fixtures.
  4. Increase the amount and types of cleaning and ensure all cleaning materials are anti-bacterial. Be sure bathrooms are well-stocked with soap, and order adequate anti-viral cleaning supplies in the event of a shortage.


Integrate Community

Reduce Stigma, and Encourage Altruism

  1. Design outdoor areas with flexible types of seating and appropriate seating groups that encourage social distancing.
  2. Improve exterior building appearance and provide information about best practices being enforced within the shelter. Open communication and good facility maintenance helps build support from the community.
  3. Provide opportunities for partnerships and volunteering though technology and safe in-person activities like planting vegetable gardens and dog runs.
  4. Become a neighborhood asset, serving as a resource for whatever current needs the community might have.



Marvel Architects is a solutions-driven design practice that integrates context and nature into every project, meeting each design challenge by listening to its surroundings. With offices in New York and San Juan, Marvel is an international firm dedicated to creativity and diversity. From the New Jersey Institute of Technology to St. Ann’s Warehouse, the team has pioneered an entrepreneurial approach to architecture and place-making that has been recognized by over 135 industry design awards including the AIA’s highest honors.


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