Perspectives 09.23.2019

How Partnering with a Local Nonprofit Helped Us Think Bigger

The refreshed multi-purpose room

Deborah’s Place is a resource for women experiencing homelessness in Chicago. We recently partnered with them on an interior refresh for their multi-purpose room, which is already helping women build community in a vibrant new space, and allowing the organization to host events for community partners and more activities for the residents.

Deborah’s Place understands that while providing residents with basic needs and a firm foundation is critical, inspiring the women is what will help them achieve their goals. With this mission in mind, Deborah’s Place wanted their interior refresh to make the residents feel valued, important, and worthy.

When Audrey Thomas, CEO of Deborah’s Place, told us “Nothing is too nice for our women”, we knew we could find ways to give them everything on their wish list.

As architects, we know that at their core buildings and spaces serve the most basic needs. They keep us dry, provide safety and security, and house specific functions like cooking or sleeping. However, we believe design can and should be aspirational. Working with Deborah’s Place allowed us to consider the bigger picture. In this case, that meant figuring out a design solution that would help Deborah’s Place further their mission of improving the lives of real people with real needs.


Our task was to transform an old gymnasium into a meeting and gathering space for residents, staff, volunteers, and the local community. Finishes, acoustics, and functionality were top priorities.

Solution 1: A Splash of Color

We enlivened the walls with splashes of color, and employed Xorel Artform Panels by Carnegie to provide a fresh look to the space. The colors reflect the Deborah’s Place logo, mirroring their positive message for residents. The color and acoustic elements of design not only act as an aesthetic enhancement, but also reduce echo and increase audio quality for speaking and other events.

Solution 2: Lighten It Up

We know that thoughtful lighting impacts the mood of a space. The new lighting at Deborah’s Place, obtained through a grant program by ComEd, immediately improved the quality of the space by changing the color and increasing light levels.  The existing light quality was poor, leading users to comment that it was difficult to read, write, and present: all key activities for the events and after school program taking place within the space.  After installing the appropriate lighting the space is bright, welcoming and better suited to the activities of the users.


Solution 3: Sounds Good

The audio-visual system includes a projector, projection screen, and distributed sound system, and gives Deborah’s Place the ability to improve current meeting functions and expand programming. They host trainings, social gatherings for residents, volunteer events, food distribution, an After School Matters Program, performance poetry workshops for residents, art therapy, and more. The modernized audio-visual system allows these events to run smoothly, positioning Deborah’s Place to be a community hub and gathering place for residents, partnering organizations, staff, and donors.

Solution 4: Flexibility

Functional furniture selections allow the space to house training sessions, after-school programming, or movie nights with ease. Before, Deborah’s Place had heavy chairs and large folding tables.  It was difficult for staff to move and set up for different events and meetings.  The result was a haphazard arrangement of tables and chairs that were never broken down or put away.  The new furniture solution includes lightweight stacking chairs (the “Rowdy Side” chair by Sit On It) and flip-top nesting tables on wheels (the “Seven Flip” Table by Watson).  The chairs can easily be moved and stacked by staff, and the tables roll on wheels with a top that flips vertically for easy and compact storage.

This project was supported by our Social Purpose Initiative, in which our teams donate a portion of their time to deliver pro-bono projects to local nonprofits. The project was also funded by a generous grant from the Sammons Financial Group.

Generous Partners

The project owes much of its success to Carnegie Fabrics / Xorel Artform, who donated all of the fabric-wrapped acoustic panels that provided much of the color and added functionality to the space. Other vendors including Corporate Concepts, Systems Unlimited, Milliken Floors, Watson Furniture c/o The Ruder Group, and Sit on It offered deep discounts on products, services, and materials. In addition, Advanced Communications, Crossville, Mid-America Tile, USG, and Skender assisted in our early design process. All of these contributions allowed the project to achieve everything on Deborah’s Place’s wish list and more.

In April 2019, the space opened to an inspiring community of women. Deborah's Place initially saw the upgrades as a way to better host their staffing and training sessions, but with improved functionality, they look forward to hosting other events and programs that will strengthen their mission and serve their residents.