Sixty years ago, in a world where children were chastised for chewing gum and staying after school was tantamount to the end of the world, the concept of an entity like D.C.’s Children’s Law Center (CLC) would have been as remote an idea as bottled water.
With festering issues of abuse, neglect, education, health care, domestic violence and mental health defining young people in the 21st century, and successfully navigating a complex and evolving child welfare system can mean the difference between a life of value and one of inconsequence, the Children’s Law Center, at 616 H Street, NW, stepped up to the plate some 14 years ago and has since become a significant arbiter of change in the foster care system.
Up Where We Belong
In 2006, faced with substandard office space, monochromatic colors and deteriorating furniture and facilities in their previous home at 15th and I Streets (the organization had taken over an old law office 10 years earlier without modification or redesign), the CLC sought the advice of OTJ Architects while anticipating a move. In short, CLC wished to create a space that would both facilitate their mission and provide a source of encouragement and delight for the many adults and children who frequented the Center.
Working with OTJ partner Roger Sola-Sole, project architect Lisa Winkler and her team set about fulfilling the task of designing what the firm called a “child-centric” environment, yet one which corresponded to critical meetings and conferences, all within a highly restrictive $810,650 budget.
“They wanted a happier, lighter space, and they actually share offices,” Winkler said, relative to the 64-member move-in staff when the Center opened in 2007. “They really like to work in pairs,” she added, which they now do in 180 s.f. spaces, with some offices supporting even three employees. Single offices, at 120 s.f., also accommodate staff, with senior level employees in larger spaces and 13 workstations available for investigators should they choose to utilize them, according to Winkler.
With 16,600 s.f. on the third and part of the fourth floors of the building, the architects focused the tight budget on three main areas: the reception area on the third floor, the third floor elevator lobby and the children’s area. CLC had its own ideas about the use of primary colors, with OTJ introducing child-oriented materials into the mix. “The main color for their logo is blue,” Winkler explained, “so we wanted to focus on that blue and also brought in a bright red.” The boldness of the colors necessitated a fairly neutral carpet in a warm palette, so the architects chose a pale gold for the public spaces and a carpet tile that was both gold and blue for the Center’s lunch room/lounge area.
If I Had a Hammer
At the end of a hallway, silhouettes of children on red walls engaged in various activities keep that area playful, with Winkler explaining that in a nod to budgetary constraints, she’d identified the images online and recruited OTJ colleagues, and some Center staff, to paint them one weekend. “We had a paint day,” she recalled. “I went over and outlined them in a Sharpie marker the day before, then the next day some of us went over and painted them in black. It was a real combined effort.”
In an effort to create something structure-wise using children’s objects, Winkler said items such as Legos were bandied about, with the ultimate design decision focusing on marbles. To that end, four or five 8-foot tall divider windows filled with 3 feet of marbles (child height) punctuate the space, with the marbles – 350 pounds in all – resourcefully obtained from a Chinese toy trader’s website. A 17 x 13-foot playroom, where an entire corner is a floor-to-ceiling blackboard and a slide with portholes accommodates both children and adults, abuts a 12 x 12-foot teen center replete with computers and TV.
When You Wish Upon a Star
“In their old offices, it was all grey, but they tried to decorate and keep it fun,” Winkler also explained, adding that employees had name plaques outside their doors where they’d customized them. In the new space, the team affixed magnetic whiteboards to each office door for staff to personalize. A long mural hallway, in which the Center wanted a D.C.-focused design, portrays row houses and stick figure children to reflect the organization’s graphics. The children in the mural hold up blank whiteboard spaces to display the hundreds of thank you letters and artwork the Center receives each year. And in a tradition replicated from the Center’s former offices, the architects posted childhood photos of current Center staff in a space en route from the children’s play area, whereby young visitors can take their chances identifying exactly who’s now who.
On the fourth floor, an adult conference room which Winkler concedes is a bright primary blue, has an electric garage door at one end to open up to a lounge seating area across the hall, accommodating the entire staff when necessary. Winkler said the decision to incorporate a garage door was budget-based, and there also wasn’t space to stack a traditional operable partition.
Receiving a lot of donations in the form of clothing and toys, Winkler said the former office configuration left no space and provided no system to organize these items. Again with economics in mind, she chose an IKEA system and built a 180 s.f. room full of shelving, right off the play area.
“We did a lot with a little bit of money,” Winkler said. “We focused on important areas, but still made the rest of the space warm and inviting.”
Overall, the architects achieved a space that clearly articulates CLC’s mission and vision while providing its youngest visitors, many of whom have come from a world unimaginable to the rest of us, an opportunity to focus on being children.