Making Artful Transitions at YW Hub Calgary

Read Time: 8 minutes

The new 127,000-square-foot YWCA Calgary in Alberta is a safe, caring environment where women in crisis can stay while they make positive life changes; it’s also home to a special art collection that originated from YW Hub’s wayfinding program, designed by Entro (Calgary).

How can you make an institutional space feel more like a home?

In accordance with their mission, “To intervene, empower, and lead when and where women need us most,” YW Calgary provides accessible support for women and their families, including transitional housing, counseling, language and employment skill training, child development and parenting programming. To further their goals of breaking the cycles of domestic abuse, poverty and homelessness through the creation of a cohesive safe, healthy and caring environment for growth and recovery, YW embarked on building a totally new facility.

The new 127,000-square-foot facility completed in the spring of 2019, acts as a “Hub” for the YWCA, facilitating all programs for the organization, across all of their existing facilities. With housing for up to 100, YW Hub hosts women and families in crisis for a few nights, weeks, or longer based on their needs. The building was envisioned as using a holistic approach to trauma-informed design to foster a feeling of welcome to vulnerable people seeking help.

Various areas of the building employ different security and accessibility measures for privacy and safety of clients in accordance with use; at the same time, many of the facilities are meant to give back to the community and are open to the public. The challenge to the architects, interior, and experiential design teams was how to make the public and private spaces cohesive, less institutional, and more human-centered—to create a home-like environment that encourages wellbeing and connects with users and staff.  

User research was performed early on by the client and architectural team to establish the key design drivers. While the interior layout of the YW Calgary Hub Facility was piloted by very specific requirements outlined in the Functional Program and the principles of Trauma-Informed Design, the conceptual direction for the development and site was revealed through a series of focused visioning sessions with multiple stakeholder groups early in the process, including the YW Calgary Board, staff, clients and members of the surrounding community.

From these sessions, this series of design drivers was established for the look and feel: Safe, Comfort, Connected, Inclusive, Resilient, Well-being, and Beacon—described as “a sanctuary of hope and opportunity.” Each area of the building has a different theme informed by the building design drivers, such as Welcoming, Healing, Community and Whimsy.

The solution began with big windows, filling spaces with light and views of nature in a protected central courtyard— a large green respite, complete with a children’s play area. Later, the space became more vibrant with the addition of bright furnishings, and 90 works of art—many of which were integrated into the wayfinding system. The colors, shapes and textures employed in the signage complement the YW branding, without reiterating.

Large printed murals adorn and enliven the childcare spaces, community kitchen and stairways commonly used by staff and residents. Painting, photography, fiber and mixed-media artworks in the main level welcome space, reception areas and publicly accessible corridors activate the space with pops of color and texture, as smaller room identification pieces draw visitors in with intricate detail, inviting exploration through touch.

A yellow gallery-like space in the main welcoming space attracts attention with larger-than-life reproductions of realist portraits, rendered in graphite by artist Janice Tanton. The portraits, printed on hanging banners, are representations of the diversity of women present at the YW Hub. On closer inspection, it’s a uniquely egalitarian donor recognition system; names are projected onto the portrait banners in a randomized order and scale that dodges traditional hierarchy.

“We were brought in by the Project Director, Lori Van Rooijen, to develop a strategy for wayfinding,” recalls Chris Herringer, senior associate and design director at Entro. “Along with independent curator Mary-Beth Laviolette, we developed a master plan to determine how works of art could integrate with wayfinding—to be used as landmarks, room identification beacons, or as the backdrop to activity spaces and for donor recognition.”

The idea was that art and graphics could express the transformation of the reimagined YW Calgary and its mission in the community, and in turn, the transformations of YW’s clientele. “Not many projects incorporate commissioned art directly into wayfinding and placemaking communications, let alone a social service agency for women, but the client loved the idea,” Herringer says. “The wayfinding program and master plan provided the armature for the introduction of art, rather than a complete separation of the two.”

Herringer and the design team wanted to showcase a majority of local female artists’ works: altogether, the YW commissioned 19 Alberta-based artists for 60 room identification pieces and seven larger works that function as landmarks, or immersive experiences. An additional selection of 23 long term loans was curated and made available through the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, The City of Calgary Civic Art Collection and the Collectors’ Gallery of Art.

Laviolette and Herringer worked with regional art universities and programs, arts and crafts councils, galleries and civic collections with a focus on textile, fabric and fiber art—the type of art and craft that was often passed down by generations of women and is currently undergoing a resurgence in popularity. Herringer confirms that the idea to use fiber and textile art was validated through a coincidental exhibition called “Eye of the Needle,” curated by Laviolette in 2017 for the Glenbow Museum. “Complimenting historical examples of craft, the exhibition featured diverse, intricate works of art and craft by contemporary artists using needlework and textiles as their primary form of expression, including pieces by Métis and Indigenous artists.”

The YW serves a large Indigenous population, so it was important to have Indigenous artists creating new, original work as part of the program. Additionally, the commissioned art had to be appropriate in the context of trauma-informed design principles; subject matter and imagery had to be mindful that many users of the facility have experienced severe trauma.

The team knew they had an idea that would work: In essence, it’s making a house into a home. We thought that bringing in local artists would create a sense of community better than we could as a design firm alone, Herringer recounts. It was about inviting people to be part of the process and orchestrating that effort. The rigor of it was in finding the right artists, and Laviolette analyzing the work to find the right mix. They ended up with works from almost entirely female artists, six of whom also identify as Indigenous.

From the outset, the process was highly collaborative and all involved were committed to successful outcomes. All efforts were coordinated with the YWCA Project Director, the architects, development manager, project team consultants and contractors. In addition to the work of each artist, Herringer credits the success of the program in large part to the quality and coordination of the sign and framing fabricators and installers.

Each aspect of the art and design project was managed by the Entro team led by Herringer, and Laviolette who, in addition to her knowledge, added a crucial element of trust in approaching and working with the artists and loaning institutions. Artists were invited to two master plan project and objective briefings where the client conveyed the mission of the YWCA—something that really seemed to have struck a chord with the artists. Once commissioned, they prepared and presented maquettes and concept narratives for their pieces for approval.

“The only thing we specifically asked the artists was not to submit anything with abstract content that might set people on edge,” he says. “What the artists were thinking about was what YW Hub is, and how to reflect the community and landscape in beauty, brightness, activity.” The process was streamlined—no one presented anything that missed the mark.

Before the artwork was installed, the YW held an advanced show of the smaller commissions in a nearby gallery, The Collectors’ Gallery of Art. The show was a milestone marker that bolstered enthusiasm for the opening. The team at Entro were all very pleased with the final pieces, and installed work, Herringer states. “[The artists] didn’t try to go outside of themselves; they made work they thought would connect with people because it meant something to each of them personally.”

This unique solution has shown its success in the repeated positive responses from those who use the YW Hub services, from staff, and the surrounding community. And importantly, it has helped attracted donors. Van Rooijen hopes that other socially focused organizations see this program as a model for their own facilities. “Art is for all—it is something everyone should have access to, and it creates sense of welcome,” she says. “The number one comment we get is that the building is amazing, and the art adds to the warmth and overall wellness of the spaces.”


Project Name: YW Hub Facility
Client: YWCA Calgary
Location: Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Open Date: April 2019
Project Area: 127,000 sq ft
Budget: $60,000,000
EGD Budget: $254,200
Architecture: Kasian
Landscape Architecture: Scatliff Miller Murray
Planning: Kasian
Experiential Graphic Design: Entro
Design Team: Chris Herringer (design director); Jacqueline Tang (senior designer); Aleks Bozovic (senior designer/industrial design); Shira Choi, Kevin Cortez, Monika Meyer, Michelle Rawlings, Rachel Wallace (project designers)
Fabrication: WSI Sign Systems (sign fabrication and installation); Jarvis Hall Gallery (art framing); Kyle Beal Art Services (art installation); Grafitti Imaging, Resolve Photography, ABL Imaging (printing); Joypixels (emoji); Epson/Onsite IT (digital projector hardware and integration)
Art Program Consultants | Mary-Beth Laviolette (curator); Gail Lint / Alberta Foundation for the Arts, Quyen Hoang / City of Calgary Public Art Program (art loans)
Commissioned Art | Ilse Anysas-Salkauskas, Alaynee Goodwill-Littlechild, Sharon Johnston, Sharon Rose Kootenay, Diane Krys, Rachelle LeBlanc, Linda McBain Cuyler, Liv Pedersen, Jillian Roulet, Caitlin Thompson, Allison Tunis, Diana Un-Jin Cho (room identification/fiber, weaving, embroidery, rug hooking and indigenous beading); Neepin Auger, Lisa Brawn, Elaine Funnell (room identification/painting, watercolour and woodcut); Jason Carter, Elaine Funnell, Leah Gravells, Faye HeavyShield, Janice Tanton (main commissions/fiber, photography, painting, watercolour, drawing and murals)
Loaned Art | Ilse Anysas-Salkauskas, Joane Cardinal-Schubert RCA, David Garneau, Hazel Litzgus, Jeff Nachtigall, Katie Ohe RCA, Liv Pedersen, Alayne Spafford and Jennifer Wanner (collection of the Alberta Foundation For The Arts/fiber, painting, drawing, printmaking and mixed media); Murray Gibson (The City Of Calgary Civic Art Collection/fiber)
Donated Art | John Snow RCA, ASA, CSG (The Collectors’ Gallery Of Art/painting); Elaine Funnell (Elaine Funnell/watercolor)
Photography: Jason Dziver and Michelle Jay