This February, Downtown Emergency Service Center’s (DESC) The Estelle opened in Rainier Valley. There, ninety-one studio apartments provide permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless individuals. More than just a project update, we’re honored to share insights into the DESC mission and the difference it’s making to Seattle’s housing and homeless crisis.
Approaching the Housing and Homeless Crisis, The DESC Way
Walk any street in downtown Seattle and you’ll encounter homelessness. It’s prominent, seen in a cardboard sign pleading for aid, a bundle bedded down in a doorway, or at the tent villages sprouting under interstates. DESC has made it their mission to not see a bundle, sign, or tent, but the person instead. To them, the homeless and housing crisis is entirely about people, and their response is to reach those most crippled by the vicious cycle of poverty.
DESC stands up to address the homeless and housing crisis with a Housing First approach. This approach, which they helped pioneer in the United States, is founded on unconditional acceptance. Instead of requiring a client to meet requirements or submit to drug testing before a housing placement, DESC prioritizes the most vulnerable and hard to reach, allowing those most in need to move into housing first, despite mental illness and/or substance dependency. This philosophy of unconditional support extends from the smallest thing they do (tenants are referred to as “clients”), to the largest (their program is designed to be comprehensive, extending far beyond housing alone).
Homelessness is a polarizing issue in our city, with calls for change being met with calls for care. DESC projects tend to meet resistance wherever they go, as solutions move out of hypothetical and into Seattle neighborhoods. As DESC continues to fight poverty and homelessness it’s clear that their methodology is unique. And it works.
We consider it a privilege to support DESC. We can’t say enough great things about their staff, and as we partner to create affordable housing projects in Seattle, it’s a blessing to see the difference their efforts are making in the city and in the lives of so many in need. We were lucky too that the entire Estelle project team, which included, in addition to Coughlin Porter Lundeen’s civil (Ken Wiersema, P.E. LEED AP) and structural (Chris Padin, P.E.) engineers, SMR Architects, Walsh Construction Company, and Fazio Associates, felt the same way. We were united in knowing these projects are so much more than buildings, even well-intentioned, well-designed ones. They represent positive change to the many people receiving individualized care.
Work That Matters
For Coughlin Porter Lundeen structural engineer Chris Padin, working with DESC has been eye-opening. “Affordable housing isn’t part of the average college curriculum,” he jokes, “but once you’re exposed to a mission like DESC’s, it’s impossible to turn your back. The project may have wrapped up, but I’m hooked. I sincerely believe in the DESC mission and have witnessed the value in work they do.”
Many of our team members bring their causes to work, knowing that Coughlin Porter Lundeen will do its best to support them. Chris is the DESC champion in our office. And outside it, he’s equally active, attending community meetings, volunteering at crisis centers, and even working with DESC clients through resume building and computer skills workshops. His most important contribution though, is simpler: time. “It’s so evident that these people need others to care about them. They light up when they’re engaged by someone who cares. Spending ten minutes with someone who lives in this world [of homelessness] changes the way you see things. It’s inspiring to feel like, in some small form, I can give back.”
Spend a bit of time exploring DESC’s stories and you’re sure to be astonished by the resilience their clients show. We believe that as a project partner, it’s our job to help communicate DESC’s purpose and value, and to help our community understand that solving the housing crisis is so much more complicated than “just build housing,” or “just go get a job.” There are so many facets to poverty, and understanding where it comes from, its cycle, and our role as community members can improve the quality of life for all.
A DESC Project Profile: The Estelle Apartments
A long-term DESC partner, we’ve contributed to Aurora House, Canaday House, Cottage Grove Commons, N96 Apartments, Interbay Place, and the Lyon Building renovation. In each, we’ve witnessed the DESC difference: a commitment to make beautiful, lasting, affordable housing projects. They’re designed with a care and intention that’s unique to the market. We’re excited to highlight the features of the most recent project, The Estelle, where ninety-one studio apartments now provide permanent supportive housing for disabled and vulnerable individuals. What makes it so special?
Programming – More than a front door.
- Programming Standout #1: Harborview Medical Center
The Estelle houses a first-of-its-kind partnership with Harborview Medical Center, bringing together the advantages of both permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless people and high-quality, 24/7 onsite healthcare services. Fifteen units are dedicated to the care of recently hospitalized clients who require additional primary or behavioral health medical support. The groundbreaking partnership is a model for future projects. DESC already has plans in design to replicate this feature.
- Programming Standout #2: A Safe Space, And So Much More
Consistent with DESC’s philosophy to care for their clients holistically, The Estelle Apartments offer amenities specific to resident needs. Care is extended far beyond housing alone, giving residents access to onsite medical care, professional counselors, case workers, and even transportation aid, with three shuttles available to take clients to job interviews, doctor’s appointments and such.
Engineering – Notable features and solutions.
- Engineering Standout #1: Sad, Sad Soil
Estelle’s site has terrible, unstable soil. Every site is evaluated to determine the “allowable bearing pressure,” or, how much pressure the soil can take before undesirable consequences occur. In this case, evaluation showed that the site was not suitable for bearing. This required a unique solution, so our team conceptualized a matrix of Rammed Aggregate Piers to support the foundation. Working closely with geotechnical engineer James Strange of Geotech Consultants, the team created an economical system that reached suitably stable native material buried more than 15 feet deep. Our team also conceptualized an atypical foundation system to sit on top of the rock piers. Using specially-designed foundations, the load-carrying system supports the building’s weight as well as a large polished concrete slab.
- Engineering Standout #2: Architectural Features
Inside, The Estelle features elements like exposed concrete walls and polished concrete floors. A double-height entryway features large windows and decorative ceilings to enhance the experience once inside. Externally, thoughtful touches like board formed concrete, cantilevered wood-framing, decorative sunshades, a large steel entry canopy, and resident courtyard make the affordable housing project relatively upscale. The cantilevered framing required unique designs from our structural team, while our civil team coordinated the grading for the parking-garage-to-courtyard transition. They also helped create the courtyard between the building and garage that features rain gardens to treat the green roof and site runoff . As always, we considered it our responsibility to create solutions that matched the architectural vision.
- Engineering Standout #3: Accommodating Affordable Housing Nuances
Like every market, affordable housing has its nuances, and our team responded with designs that were tailored to the needs of the residents. For example, surfaces needed to be durable, not becoming dingy or damaged after routine wear, air quality mattered greatly, and the first floor needed to include a functional clinic to meet the project’s goals. As such, the team opted for durable, lasting finishes in the floors and the walls, using a considerable amount of exposed concrete. With air quality in mind, the design accommodated an increased number of mechanical units and duct work and air pressurization and circulation is almost double that found in a typical residential building. And finally, first-floor designs brought the clinic to the tenants with a full-time, onsite nurse, offices for DESC case workers, and a large community engagement space.
For more information about DESC, we encourage you to visit their website: www.desc.org
Architect: SMR Architects
Owner: Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC)
General Contractor: Walsh Construction Company
Mechanical Engineer: Sider & Byers
Electrical Engineer: Merit Electric
Landscape Designer: Fazio Associates