It’s quiet here, even through the hum of activity sun and fresh air stream in. People walk in and out, greeting each other, bending down to pat heads and smile at the little ones. Welcome to the 21st century no kill animal shelter.
To the casual observer, an animal shelter may not seem like much of a design challenge: a structure that safely houses stray animals for subsequent adoption. But start to consider the details of the building. It must hold different types of animals, in differently sized pens, for variable lengths of time. It should be accessible to the public and welcoming to volunteers while maintaining strict health and safety standards. It has limited staff and resources but must relentlessly promote adoption. Day-to-day operations require basic medical capabilities, laundry facilities, storage, and quarantine areas. It must not be too big (causing unnecessary maintenance and staffing demands) or too small (causing overcrowding and/or excessive distress to the animals).
“Because of their unique services, animal shelters must have the disease-prevention components of a hospital, the functional capabilities of a police station, and the user-friendly appeal of a library, ” said Geoffrey L. Handy with The Humane Society of the United States.
Historically, shelters have gotten little architectural consideration. The prototypical shelter — a concrete building with individual chain-link kennels — reflects this inattention. Many of these structures were built-in the 1950’s and 1960’s and provided few areas for play, enrichment and human attention. This utterly utilitarian approach reflected the mentality that shelters are mere holding facilities.
Over the following decades, public attitudes toward animal welfare, low-cost spay/neuter policies, and responsible pet ownership evolved. Euthanasia rates dropped from around 24 million pets in 1970 (around 81 percent of those entering shelters) to 6 million (around 58 percent of those entering shelters) in 1996, but shelter directors wanted to drop that number further. They began to think about how facility design could enhance their mission by boosting adoption numbers and creating a better experience for both animals and visitors, and a few architects recognized an opportunity to influence the effectiveness of these organizations from the outside in.
Group (or pod) housing is a newer development with a big, direct impact on the quality of life of shelter dogs. It can take many forms — from modestly sized rooms or kennels that house two to three pups, to shared play spaces that allow caregivers to control how much time dogs spend together and apart. Isolated housing is still used, as it can be beneficial in certain contexts, like with newly admitted dogs undergoing medical or behavioral evaluations.
The Humane Society of Silicon Valley (HSSV), a shelter in Milpitas, CA, recently constructed a new facility (pictured above) they call an “animal community center.” There, temperamentally compatible dogs may be housed in small groups once they pass their medical exams and behavioral evaluations. They live in “real life”-type rooms with proper doors and occasional furniture, which acclimates them to scenarios they will find in new homes when they are eventually adopted. The rooms are designed to insulate noise effectively, reducing stimulation from outside commotion. This isn’t only beneficial to the dogs; it also has a huge impact on visitors, who are no longer overwhelmed by cacophonous howling. Functionally, the real life rooms mean the dogs have less casual exposure to the public, so volunteers are trained to facilitate visits and give potential adopters the tactile experience of meeting the dogs.
While shared, real-life rooms have their advantages, for many shelters they are not an option due to budget, space or staff limitations. For those cases there are other design solutions.
Dr. Kate Hurley is the program director for the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at UC Davis. She advocates dog runs (housing one or more pups) split into two sides by a guillotine door. These runs give shelters greater flexibility. Dogs can be grouped in compatible pairs in the runs, with the doors left open to allow more space to run around. Or, if and when it makes more sense, the guillotine door can be lowered to keep dogs separated. This solution is useful for shelter staff as it facilitates quick and sanitary cleaning protocols, allowing kennel attendants to isolate dogs on one side of the run by closing the door while they clean the other side, minimizing disease contamination. The guillotine door can also be raised and lowered to manage structured play and quiet time, as well as during feedings, to minimize food guarding between pups.
Kennels that are divided into two areas — whether real-life rooms or more typical runs split by guillotine doors — have an important added benefit to the dogs’ well-being and stress levels. By creating a space for the pups to eliminate apart from their sleeping and eating area, shelters promote good bathroom habits. A canine has such a strong urge to separate its eating and sleeping space from its elimination areas that, according to Dr. Hurley, around 75 percent of all shelter dogs — even strays — will do this given the opportunity. According to Hurley, this significantly reduces stress and supports a desired behavior once the dog goes to its adopted home.
Additional kennel features create an environment that is easier to clean, manages odors better, and helps control disease. Sealed concrete flooring, for example, saves significant amounts on heating and cooling bills — funds that can be funneled back into animal care. High-density coatings for interior walls and floors withstand pressure hoses and detergent better than other finishes. Kennel areas with plenty of windows that bring in as much natural air and light as possible help reduce odors and create a healthier and more soothing experience for both the animals and their visitors. Observation/isolation rooms with self-contained ventilation systems allow ill dogs to be treated without jeopardizing other members of the population.
Better design doesn’t just help the dogs who live there but it’s also beneficial for the people who visit, volunteer, and work at the shelter.
For staff, play and rest areas that keep dogs more comfortable and stress free help create a calmer and safer work environment. Hutchison observes that “real-life rooms, well-designed kennels, and other features help volunteers and staff work with animals in a non-threatening, comfortable environment.”
Facilities that are cheerful, light and welcoming also create a more pleasant experience for visitors who are turned off by the “sad factor” of entering a shelter, expecting to find dogs in prison-like conditions. Kennels with home-like furnishings or enough space for chairs, for example, allow people to interact with the animals more easily and feel comfortable taking the time they need to get to know their potential new companions.
Facilities that are pleasant to be in also naturally attract increased volunteer interest. Jeanne Wu, vice president of human resources and volunteering at HSSV, says that the number of volunteer hours given to the organization has grown 40 percent, from 53,000 to more than 74,000, since it moved to its new facility two years ago. The number of volunteers has also increased, by about 50 percent. HSSV values these hours at about $1.5 million per year — an incredible boon to the organization. Wu explains that HSSV, which has 95 full-time staff members, could not maintain optimal levels of socialization, care, and adoptions without altruistic help. Bill Hutchison feels the same way, “Volunteers enjoy being a part of such a progressively designed facility. Having a variety of design functions that address the needs of animals in many different situations is important to volunteers who know that animals in shelters have unique needs.” A dedicated volunteer room with lockers for personal items and a place to sit down, socialize, and relax supports morale and makes the shelter a fulfilling and comfortable place to spend time.
While designing a shelter that includes enriching features can cost more money, certain elements may save money over the long-term through energy savings, an increase in volunteer numbers and/or hours, or reduced medical expenses. Through the design and integration of better systems for disease-management and stress reduction, UC Davis’ Hurley sees shelters slowly shifting from being primarily adoption centers to places where prevention happens. One day their focus may even transition from finding homes for surrendered pets and strays to providing services — such as low-cost training, behavioral hotlines, and workshops to troubleshoot problems with neighbors or landlords — to help keep animals in their homes, thereby avoiding the shelter system entirely.
One day we will see no-kill state of the art green movement animal shelters across America –
All things can happen if you believe and if you work towards them.
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