Volunteers of America Youth Center

A Center for Hope and Healing

From the beginning, we knew this was going to be a special one. Loaded with meaning, ripe with positive impact. We jumped on board with VOA’s mission to design an authentic, uplifting, quality building to serve Utah’s underserved youth. 

Architecture is generally kept to the realm of [relative] affluence, so we were, and still are, excited to work on a project for a user group that has been given few resources. During our initial meetings, Mark Manazer (VOA’s Chief Operating Officer) described his line of work as that of a “meaning junky”, a statement that continues to resonate with our team. After the visioning sessions, which brought together numerous community members and stakeholders, it became clear just how dedicated the group was to the youth and how much they believed in their futures. The VOA team stands apart in their unwavering selflessness and commitment to serving their young clients – we knew we’d struggle to keep them from giving away their staff breakroom. In the spirit of the project, we set aside our stuffy selves, took out our softest of hearts, and added them to the pile.

We would be remiss to say the project had no challenges – obtaining the conditional use permit allowing for the shelter component took over a year. As with any complex social service or situation, even the best of intentions is often met with resistance. Overall, the surrounding neighborhood supported the project – some with enthusiastic invitation and pride, with generous offers of collaboration and interest in volunteering; some approached it with skepticism, some with criticism; and occasionally it was met with outright rejection. While these conversations ultimately belong to the VOA, relating to their intimate understanding of the youth and future relationship to neighbors, it was certainly testing to all involved at times.

Currently, the project is in its final throes of review by the City of Salt Lake. We anticipate breaking ground by the end of March. The project remains one of our heart-felt gems – an opportunity to offer our skills to the community and engage our passion in helping others, albeit from the quiet corners behind our computers.

Project Team: Peggy McDonough, Brent Agnew, Hannah Vaughn, Rui Morais, Don Williams, Sara Miller

Client: Volunteers of America

Concept Sketch

Concept Sketch

Designing with Intention:

The VOA Youth Center is designed to provide a safe and healing environment for the homeless youth of Utah, while contributing to the surrounding Granary and Central 9th Districts. The Center strives to be a model for the future, founded on ideas of choice, dignity, and acceptance--a model conceived by the young clients themselves:

“When the community sees the new VOA Youth Center, I want them to think that it is life changing, productive in helping youth take the next step to a better life" - a homeless youth, 2013

The Center will serve as an anchor for the developing urban environment, located within walking distance of public transit and near community partners. Ample transparency provides sitelines to the exterior, allowing for a constant visual connection to the street. The architecture has been articulated to be legible and welcoming, but also to provide safety and privacy. With a gallery wall, a display corner, and an exterior art wall, the youth have an opportunity to project their identities and express their creativity. Their expressions become an integral part of the architecture and communicate directly with the surrounding neighborhood.

South Elevation

South Elevation

East Elevation

East Elevation

In the effort to bring natural light and a feeling of calm to the Center, there is an interior courtyard carved into the plan. The courtyard provides an outside space within the building and is intended for programmed activity, private conversations, and a constant connection to the natural world. It also serves to divide the interior, providing semi-private space for activity, but still allowing for visual connection within the Center. In addition, there is a skywell and numerous windows. The interior space is designed to be flexible in order to accommodate various activities throughout the day while maintaining clear sitelines and providing ample light. The Center is conceived as positive, energetic space, bustling with well-organized activity.

The second level of the Center is dedicated to education and counseling, with a vital connection to the first floor, in order to give a sense of accessibility to the young clients. This visual and audible connection, coupled with clear wayfinding, is intended to help with engagement. Educational programs are architecturally celebrated, and their position on the second floor emphasizes the youths’ hopeful trajectory away from the street and into independent life.

Project Research:

In December 2009, Salt Lake Task Force to End Youth Homelessness was formed under Volunteer of America, Utah's Leadership. They proceeded to analyze gaps in local services for homeless youth. In 2010, the task force went on several research trips around the United States seeking best practices with homeless youth. In 2011 they published the research and recommendations in "Ending Youth Homelessness" and presented the report to the State Homeless Coordinating Committee. This set the foundation of research for the center and was shared with the design team prior to beginning design. The design team continued to research best practices in architecture, investigating national and international precedents with similar program needs, challenges, and opportunities. An extensive programming phase served to define the needs of the Center currently and in the future in order to design a building that will serve the youth and the community over time. 

Community Participation:

In the initial steps of design, a visioning session was held. Participants included many stakeholders and community partners. The visioning revealed what the center should be to each of its diverse users and developed consensus among the stakeholders. In addition, boards and surveys were placed at the current Homeless Youth Resource Center, enabling the youth to express their vision of the future center. The results were then summarized in a series of statements, setting the course for the design development. 

Visioning Session with Community Partners

Visioning Session with Community Partners

During design, the VOA and the design team held several community meetings, inviting neighbors, and met with community leaders in order to gather feedback and concerns of the center. The information was again summarized and directly informed the design of the Center.

Anticipating Change:

The center is designed to enable the healing and progress of the youth that are being served, to support the staff and community partners in their task of serving, and to contribute to the surrounding neighborhood. The Center acts as a framework that facilitates the youths' path to self-sufficiency through creating a calm and porous environment, and supports staff and community. Data marking youth success and activity along with testimony will serve as markers of success.  

One Youth's Vision of the Center

One Youth's Vision of the Center

About the VOA Youth Resource Center:

The VOA Youth Center is a model center designed to serve the homeless youth of Salt Lake City. The building houses a program of outreach engagement-based care, acting as a launch pad to self-sufficiency. Through mechanisms of welcoming, reciprocity, and expression, the Center is intended to be inviting and fit into the surrounding neighborhood with a presence of playfulness and dignity.


Community Impact:

The VOA Youth Center is making positive waves here in Utah and for the homeless youth population.  Read more about this project in the following news links:

Utah Public Interest Design Award Winners: First Place Winner – VOA Youth Center

Utah Public Interest Design Institute Conference Presentation

Deseret News: Volunteers of America-Utah's homeless youth resource center inching closer to reality

Fox 13: VOA to Construct 30-Bed Homeless Youth Shelter

Good4Utah: VOA has Plans to Open New Emergency Shelter for Homeless Teens

Your Mark On The World Center: New Center for Homeless Youth to Provide Housing

KUER: New Youth Homeless Shelter to Break Ground Early Next Year