Project History


Domestic violence victims and their families may spend between one week and three months in emergency shelters before moving to transitional or permanent housing. Most domestic violence programs offer safe emergency housing for victims in immediate danger from their abusers, and aim to empower survivors and help them reclaim a non-violent, stable family life.

Providing a facility that offers safety to multiple families with varied needs, while also supporting each individual’s healing process is extremely challenging. The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence [WSCADV] has worked closely with domestic violence programs across Washington State to think creatively about how to manage the many aspects of their work. We are honored to have the opportunity to think with our member programs and learn from their experiences. It allows us all to reach beyond the status quo and move more powerfully toward our aspirations for a world in which every relationship is determined by love and respect for each other’s and one’s own integrity.


The first spark of the Building Dignity project came out of observations of the use of rules to try to manage behavior within domestic violence shelters. WSCADV began a series of conversations with advocates around the country about how and why so many rules exist. Most rules are attempts to address safety concerns or are efforts to solve problems resulting from several families living in shared housing. While the intentions are good, long lists of rules treat the symptoms, rather than resolving the underlying causes, and ultimately get in the way of survivor-centered advocacy. Rule-driven environments are difficult for survivors, adding stress to an already challenging time in their lives.

WSCADV started working with shelter programs in Washington to rethink shelter rules, developing training programs and educational materials to encourage advocates to think deeply about how their shelter rules relate to their organizations’ missions and values.


A small foundation grant enabled WSCADV to explore the following questions through interviews and focus groups:

  • How do our shelter buildings influence our rules, policies, and practices?
  • What do survivors and their children appreciate about our buildings, and what do they find challenging?
  • How can domestic violence program spaces support our visions and missions more effectively?

WSCADV came across The 1%* website and applied for assistance. After a thoughtful selection process, Mahlum, a community-minded architecture firm in the Pacific Northwest committed to participating in The 1%, chose to donate their time and talents to WSCADV. Together, we synthesized information from focus groups, interviews, and participatory design workshops with domestic violence survivors. With Mahlum’s architectural expertise, we identified the design implications of what WSCADV had learned from survivors and advocates.
*a program of Public Architecture that connects nonprofit organizations with architecture and design firms eager to donate their time


Building Dignity is the result of a dynamic collaboration between WSCADV and Mahlum. We aspire to show that through the design and collaboration process, domestic violence housing programs can shape the built environment to reflect and compliment their mission and values. Thoughtful design can help to empower parents, support children’s needs, and facilitate healing. It can help survivors rebuild a sense of dignity and allow staff to focus on providing survivor centered advocacy. The Building Dignity project can serve as a common reference for anyone involved in building or designing emergency housing for survivors and their families: advocates, fundraisers, architects, designers, and builders.

We encourage advocates to explore the Building Dignity website for inspiration and ideas as they make plans to update, remodel, or rebuild – from the selection of a paint color to considering a new site for a future shelter.

When rebuilding is an option, we encourage the advocates, program leadership, architects and designers involved in the project to explore the site together, and discuss what ideas might be relevant to the specific project.

For more on how to use the website, visit Using This Site.

Design strategies range in scale. For more on how some programs have employed some of the strategies highlighted on this website, see our Case Studies.