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Layout and design

Last edited: September 14, 2012

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  • Planning for facility infrastructure and layout involves three key considerations: the size of the shelter; the needs of women and children who will be accessing the space; and the continuum of services to be provided within the facility.

Determining shelter size

  • The size of the shelter should be determined by the estimated number of women and children who will reside at or access the space for a specific period of time. This calculation can help to estimate the space and number of rooms/beds that will be needed for the facility.
  • Planning the number of rooms for women and children should involve considerations related to family size, including the average number and range of children who might need to stay at the shelter with their mothers. These estimates are important to develop strategies for ensuring that women are not turned away from shelters due to their family size and prevent barriers to access.
For example, in Sydney, Australia, rooms in shelters are built with a removable wall between two units so that women with several children can be accommodated by removing the wall and adjoining the two units (Weeks & Oberin, 2004).

Designing for the needs of women using the shelter

  • The shelter space and environment should help women to move past their experience of crisis and overcome the traumatic effects of violence.
  • Where possible, facilities should have space and infrastructure which allows for individual privacy, reflection, expression as well as collective activities. This might include:
    • A bedroom for each woman with her children;
    • A bathroom shared by no more than two rooms/women;
    • Indoor and outdoor recreational space and equipment for women and girls (books, writing and art supplies, exercise-related materials, computers, toys, etc.);
    • Space to accommodate age-appropriate activities for children and adolescents (including child care or out-of-school care);
    • Adequate storage for women’s belongings such as on-site storage units or sheds; and
    • Meeting rooms or areas for women to gather and share experiences, find solidarity and support from others and to reinforce violence as a social rather than a personal problem.
  • Facilities should aim to offer all women living in the shelter direct access to cooking facilities and food supplies, sufficient water/ bathrooms, as well as laundry or washing areas, if possible.
  • Depending on available resources, shelters should provide items such as basic cooking appliances and supplies, dishes, cutlery and utensils for all common cooking areas and individual units (where possible); furniture; household items (e.g. towels, bedding, personal hygiene and sanitary supplies).
  • The space, including furniture and equipment used, should be designed and arranged with consideration for accessibility by women living with disabilities and safety for small children.

Designing for the continuum of services to be provided

  • Depending on the continuum of services to be provided, various types of rooms and space will be needed for service provision. Some spaces may be able to overlap with the recreational spaces identified above, with consideration to the size, setup, security, and privacy requirements for each type of service provided.
  • Separate rooms/spaces may be needed for:
    • Counseling, crisis intervention, risk assessments and safety planning, etc.
    • Group meetings or trainings and support groups
    • Medical/health assessment and services (if within the mandate of the shelter)
    • Administrative activities (which should include telephones, computers, internet access)
    • An office to store confidential information (electronic and hard files) and if applicable, equipment for monitoring building security (e.g. security video monitors or alarms)
    • Storage of programme supplies (i.e. computer server and other technology, tables, chairs, living supplies, etc.)
    • Storage of facility equipment (i.e. garage or shed for large equipment, vehicles, etc.)

(Woodman & McCaw, 2008, WAVE, 2004; WAVE, 2004a)


Building Dignity (Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2012). This website provides advocates and shelter developers with an illustrated overview of key strategies for designing an emergency shelter, based on the context of domestic violence advocates in Washington, USA. The website is organized into five architectural places (site design, communal space, kitchen, private space and staff space) and includes examples from real shelters, additional guidance for advocates to consider as well as links to relevant design and related shelter resources. Available in English.