Giving 'back to the sisterhood:' Women-led team designs new Hamilton YWCA

A team of five women and one man have designed Hamilton's new YWCA, which will house dozens of affordable housing units for women and their families.

Energy efficient building will have 50 units for women and their families

The YWCA design team, from Kearns Mancini Architects, was lead by five women and one man. From the top (left to right): Deborah Byrne, Alice Gibson, Kelly Fisher. Bottom: (left to right): Irene Rivera, Natalie Krakovsky, and Rick Sealey. ((Kearns Mancini Architects Inc.))

Deborah Byrne didn't plan for a mainly women-lead team to design YWCA Hamilton's new women's affordable housing facility — but it was an "awesome" twist of serendipity.

The new Ottawa Street YWCA facility — set to open in 2020 — will have 50 affordable housing units for women and their families, plus a seniors' centre and community areas on the bottom floors.

An architecture team of five women and one man designed the energy-efficient space, which is currently under construction. 

"We're able, I guess, to give back to the sisterhood," said Byrne, the project lead for the Ottawa Street YWCA. 

The YWCA project is the first time she's had a women-lead design team, working for a women-lead client.

"We're part of a bigger story in support of other women," she said. "There's a pride in that."

It wasn't the intention, Byrne said — as it happens, they were just the right people for the job.

"It's unusual," said Byrne, who is the director of Passive House Design Services at Kearns Mancini Architects. In her experience in the industry, "the leaders are usually men."

'Crisis' in women's homelessness

Hamilton has a "crisis in women's homelessness"  and a desperate need for housing, said Medora Uppal, director of operations with YWCA Hamilton.

The new facility is being built on the YWCA's longtime Ottawa Street property, which was previously a community centre.

A recent rendering of the Ottawa Street YWCA, which is currently under construction. (Kearns Mancini Architects)

The $22 million project is supported by several levels of government, she said, including a recent announcement of $10.08 million in federal funding.

Uppal said she was excited to see a women-lead team of architects.

"Our goal is to see equity and equality for women and girls in the community," she said.

"To see...a women-lead tam of architects, we knew we were putting our money where our mouth is, so to speak, and demonstrating to the community everything women can do."

Highly energy-efficient building

The architecture team has created a "passive house" design for the YWCA.

This means the building will use up to 90 per cent less energy and be largely energy self-sufficient, said Byrne — which is particularly important for people in unstable economic situations.

Deborah Byrne, seen here at the IIDEX Buildings Show, is a passive house designer with Kearns Mancini Architects and the chair of Passive House Canada. (Evan Mitsui/CBC News)

Energy efficiency was important to the YWCA, said Uppal: it keeps operating costs low and is environmentally responsible.

"We've been there for over 90 years, we want to be there for the next 100 years or more," said Uppal.

The building will be accessible and 10 units will be barrier-free, the YWCA says. Fifteen of the units will be tailored for people for developmental disabilities

Different perspective

Byrne noted there are also women on the engineering and construction side. 

Most of her career, Byrne said she's been one of few women in the room — and women architects are often supporting male leaders. 

But the industry is changing. The Ontario Association of Architects says it has about 28 per cent women — up from 23.7 per cent in 2015 — adding that nearly half their interns are women.

In Canada, the association says about 31 per cent of registered architects are women, according to data from the Canadian Architectural Licensing Authorities.

Byrne said male or female designers would be able to tackle the project. But as a women-lead team, they had a unique perspective.

"We understand what women have to deal with, especially women on their own with children," said Byrne, who said she's incredibly proud of her team — most of whom are under 40.

"I think we can look at it from that perspective and be thoughtful in the design...We get it."