Affordable Housing, Multifamily

Freedom House

Award-Winning Design Brings Authentic Truth to Short-Term Housing

A shortage of housing remains a major issue for the United States –  a crisis proven even more challenging for individuals and families who are seeking temporary shelter and support.

In response to the unique demands of short-term housing projects, architects and developers are increasing their focus on efficient construction methods, while incorporating thoughtful, yet simplistic, design considerations.

Today, pragmatic yet modern wood-frame structures are paving new opportunities–and a sense of pride–for transitional housing residents.

Freedom House Ministries is a non-profit organization providing transitional housing in Wisconsin. Their facility on the east side of Green Bay offers emergency shelter, meals, hygiene products, and case management support to help families struggling with homelessness.

In 2019, Freedom House engaged local architecture firm Berners Schober for a potential remodel of their supportive care facility; the team ultimately pursued a redesign and new construction to replace the previous decaying structure. The resulting building was an award-winning wood-frame housing and administrative facility that tells a story of warmth, simplicity, and integrity.

Authentic Simplicity

Freedom House is the only shelter in the Green Bay area that provides services exclusively to families. An unexpected medical bill or car repair are the two most common reasons that families seek housing at the facility, and a typical stay can last eight to twelve weeks.

When approaching the Freedom House redesign, Ian Griffiths, president of Berners Schober, and Steve Srubas, associate at the firm, recognized that aesthetics are often sacrificed in transitional housing. Despite a limited budget and timeline, the team saw an opportunity to differentiate this project with a humble, yet distinctive design.

Photo credit: Tricia Shay Photography
Ian Griffiths
Berners Schober
When people consider short-term housing, they think it shouldn't be visually engaging. It was important for us to illustrate that these buildings can be designed well.

“They can be welcoming, and they can make people feel good.” continued Griffiths.

Understated, yet distinct design principals served as inspiration:

“The form of the structure is the simplest way we think about a house – almost how a child would draw a house,” added Srubas. “The authentic simplicity reinforces the intent for this type of structure, and ultimately makes it feel more like a home.”

Photo credit: Tricia Shay Photography

Functional, Economic Versatility

Completed in 2020, Freedom House consists of 7,000 square feet of residential space and 9,000 square feet of administrative space. A challenging site prompted the design team to develop a bifurcated plan, separating the two structures but linking them with a glazed bridge. 

The residential structure includes five gabled roof forms and provides private rooms that can house up to 16 families, each with dedicated bathrooms. The complementary administrative wing is built into the adjacent hillside. A large retaining wall was needed to address the steeply sloped site, while a hidden, flat roof provided space for the mechanicals.

Photo credit: Tricia Shay Photography

Quiet Form, Strong Materials

After consideration of other building materials, the team chose light wood-framing for all primary structural elements including the walls, roof, and floors. Availability of materials and versatility were key factors in determining this construction type to be instrumental in completing the project on time and within budget.

“At its core, wood frame construction is still one of the simplest methods of fabricating,” said Paul Martzke, president of Immel Construction and director of pre-construction for Freedom House. “Wood is a strong, versatile, and readily available material. As we are looking to keep costs down on housing stock, wood is going to be a big player in those continued discussions.”

One of the property’s most distinctive and welcoming features is its raw, western red cedar façade, offering a nod to Wisconsin’s ample forest surroundings and local, natural building materials. Martzke and his team found the raw cladding material to be a natural fit.

“There are a lot of imitation, synthetically produced siding materials out there, but we felt western red cedar answered all the questions,” said Martzke.

Paul Martzke
Immel Construction
Wood is a natural material, it’s readily available, and it's durable. By using a strong, sustainable material, there’s a comfort level as a contractor because you know it’s going to last.

Wood construction also amplified the morale of the Immel Construction’s team, providing a unique opportunity to demonstrate traditional construction techniques.

“Our entire staff was able to relate to this project. The pride that our workers have in this project is tremendous,” shared Martzke “Walking on the job site and smelling the newly cut cedar; you could see smiles on the carpenters’ faces. It’s a rare project where they had a chance to really showcase their skills.”

In addition to natural durability and traditional construction techniques, Griffiths and Srubas chose wood cladding and siding to further illustrate the project’s authentic design.

“There is a truthfulness to the material,” said Griffiths “It’s not trying to be something it’s not. That message transcends into the people and the programs available at Freedom House.”

“It’s simple,” added Srubas. “Quiet form. Strong materials. That’s what this project stands for.”

Photo credit: Tricia Shay Photography

A Comforting, Yet Transitional Space

The interior design and furnishing materials of Freedom House were left intentionally sparse, creating a space that is comforting, yet transitional; well-suited to turnover and requiring low maintenance.

Living units include a private bath and bunk beds that can accommodate a family of up to six. Amenities for the administrative wing include a training room, a free store (that offers interview clothing, undergarments, shoes, and items for children at no cost), and a large cafeteria that can seat up to half of all residents at a time.

Photo credit: Tricia Shay Photography

During their time at Freedom House, families continue to work to reduce their debt and rehabilitate their credit. They also are offered an aftercare program for general support and access to donated personal items and household supplies.

This takes some stress off occupants’ monthly budget, and helps prevent a second shelter stay. Each family leaves with an individualized budget and new skills and knowledge for surviving on their own.

Photo credit: Tricia Shay Photography

Since opening last year, Freedom House has served hundreds of families. The project received numerous design awards, including the AIA Wisconsin Merit Design Award, the City of Green Bay Mayor’s Beautification Award, the Daily Report Top Project 2020, and Jury’s Choice for the 2021 WoodWorks U.S. Wood Design Awards.

“Quality buildings and quality design is the difference between building something functional and building something uplifting,” concluded Griffiths. “When you combine beautiful architecture with a meaningful mission, it’s a feel-good project all the way around.”

Photo credit: Tricia Shay Photography

Project Details

  • Architecture studio:
    • Berners Schober
  • Contractor:
    • Immel Construction
  • Client:
    • Freedom House Ministries
  • Project size:
    • 16,400 SF
  • Completion:
    • 2020
  • Project type:
    • New construction; Type V-B
Project Recommendation

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