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A Space to Achieve: Empowerment Through Design at Gigi's Playhouse

From our Ideas + Buildings blog

As architects and designers, we create spaces for people with many goals in mind – increasing efficiency, promoting healing, making beautiful spaces, reducing budgets, and maintaining schedules – the list goes on and on.  However, when it comes to social purpose projects, some of these goals are more challenging: budgets become tighter, efficiency requirements increase, and schedules decrease.  While some of these might make the project more challenging, these projects also come with the benefit of increased client and community involvement and a focus on creating ideal spaces for the unique end-user. Gigi’s Playhouse gave me the opportunity to do just that, by creating an empowering space for people who have often been underestimated and overlooked.

GiGi’s Playhouse is an achievement and resource center for children and adults with Down syndrome, their families, and the community. The first Playhouse opened in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, in 2003.  Since then, 16 more playhouses have opened up across the country and an additional 13 will open by the end of 2015!

In 2012, Perkins+Will was asked to develop a prototypical design and brand that could be easily replicated at all new Gigi’s Playhouse locations. When the Hoffman Estates flagship location outgrew its original space, we were called on to execute that prototype.

A central wood hub divides the space’s primary functions – tutoring, healthy living education and, of course, play! A central wood hub divides the space’s primary functions – tutoring, healthy living education and, of course, play![/caption]

The design of the new Hoffman Estates location focused on creating a space that would boost the confidence of the children and adults using the resource center, encourage healthy lifestyle choices, and promote their specialized learning style.  The multiple functions of the playhouse were designed to address the needs of parents, families, employees, tutors, volunteers, the community and—most importantly—the individuals with Down syndrome using the resource center.  All aspects of the design were thoughtfully approached to architecturally integrate opportunities for learning, achievement and inspiration.  Our main focus was to develop a center that people would walk into and immediately feel comfortable knowing it was designed for them.

Confidence is encouraged with the stage featured in the play area. The inspiring backdrop was designed by the Branded Environments team. Confidence is encouraged with the stage featured in the play area. The inspiring backdrop was designed by the Branded Environments team.[/caption]

One challenge was that the space needed to be economical in addition to functional and inspiring.  Budget was a major issue, since the entire project was funded through donations.  While the client worked tirelessly to fund raise, we collaborated with industry partners and vendors, who donated and discounted products that would not have been affordable otherwise, including light fixtures, flooring and textiles.  Even fellow coworkers helped out with the cause - the wood cladding that defines the central hub was one item we knew would be value-engineered out.  A coworker heard about this and was able to get surplus wood donated from another Perkins+Will project. We were also lucky to have Pepper Construction on board for this project.  They worked vigilantly to ensure the project came in under budget and on time for the Grand Opening, which coincided with Down syndrome Awareness month.

I was fortunate to attend that Grand Opening with some teammates.  As I toured the finished space a girl, also named Megan, approached me and explained that she was incredibly proud to be an intern at Gigi U.  She went on to tell me how she is using the space and that she is learning how to cook healthy meals and exercising three times every week.  It was pretty incredible seeing how excited Megan was to be a part of a Gigi’s program and have this new space built for her and her friends.

Series 063719 The pantry and art studio provides a creative outlet as well as a place to learn about leading a healthy lifestyle.[/caption]

To me, designing and creating spaces is an inherently rewarding process. Social Responsibility Initiative projects, and Gigi’s Playhouse in particular, have taken that to a whole new level.  Pro bono projects do come with their challenges but it is well worth it for the team who gets to work on them.  I hope that this design will inspire other cities to build their own playhouses so that the attitude of acceptance and celebration of people with Down syndrome can continue to spread.

Individual learning labs support the multi-sensory tutoring approach that has helped so many kids succeed. Headphones allow parents to hear their children’s tutoring session without distracting them for their lessons. Individual learning labs support the multi-sensory tutoring approach that has helped so many kids succeed. Headphones allow parents to hear their children’s tutoring session without distracting them for their lessons.[/caption]

Inspirational quotes line the wing walls outside of the tutoring rooms. Inspirational quotes line the wing walls outside of the tutoring rooms.[/caption]

The vibrant Get Fit gym helps kids and adults get excited about exercise. The vibrant Get Fit gym helps kids and adults get excited about exercise.[/caption]

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