A snap shot of Seventh Step Foundation by their Architect

HB+A Architects was hired by Seventh Step Foundation to provide Architectural Services in 2009. The Foundation wanted to develop a new “substance abuse rehabilitation facility” in Alameda County, to service parolees struggling with drug abuse. Most of the residents have committed crimes because of their dependence on drugs and alcohol. Below are some of their stories.

Leon, a resident of mere 5 months was transferred from the County jail and has been sober for about 8 months. After going through counseling with the Foundation, Leon has been able to bring loved ones back into his life. His dependence on Cocaine had him looking inside parked cars and homes to steal. 5 months later, this 46 year old tears up about how he lost his family’s trust, including his only child. He wants to work for the Foundation to help newer residents settle and become their mentor. He feels indebted for his past and wants to give back.

And then there’s Roy, who was brought in 2 months ago with shackles on his feet. He has been through counseling, where he learned how to let go of his anger by shedding tears and is now helping others struggling with the same dependency on Methamphetamine as him. He also has his wife and four year old child back in his life and wants to go to college to become a drug counselor and continue helping not just the parolees but people at large.

We first walked into this facility, a few years ago, very reluctantly, past ‘tough’ looking men who were standing in the yard, at the door and in the hall way. Packed with our pepper spray we tried to avoid any eye contact. Then we met Ron Doyle, who is currently serving as the Foundation’s Executive Director. An ex-military person with the warmest smile and an even warmer attitude. He showed us pictures of the residents and told us stories. On one of our visits, we met a 50 year old man who was given a shot of “something bad” by his own father when he was only 12 years old. His childhood dependency later turned him into a feared gangster. He has been at the Foundation for a couple of years now and is as mellow as a child and is extremely devoted to the Foundation’s mission and its wheel chair bound, Executive director.

We also met a “graduate”, with his own construction business, who talks zealously about most anything and is often seen riding his road bike around town.

The Foundation has had it’s shares of ex-murderers and thieves, even two individuals with life sentences (released after twenty some years). It works hard to help them transition into a normal, productive, drug free life by subjecting them to a very tight schedule, counseling, group therapy and vocational training sessions.

Last year the Foundation tried to open another facility with 16 beds. Conditional Use permit was denied by the Planning department because of a recently adopted “General Plan” for the Eden Area of Alameda County. The new General plan has the area in question zoned as “commercial”, not suited for a “residential care facility“. When the decision was appealed with the zoning board, the emotionally driven board kept bringing up “over population” of “such” facilities in the immediate area, citing “security” as a concern. Both of these issues are not true and/or even mentioned in the Planning staff’s report. The planning staff only cited the (N) zoning of the site as a reason for denial.

The true fact is that most parolees are sent back to the counties of their origin and end up living on the streets when/if family members don’t take them in. And desperation, can and most often causes them to commit crimes again.

The Seventh Step Foundation’s facility on the other hand works as a fantastic place of transition. The facility is monitored 24 hours and is also regularly patrolled by the police. And quite frankly because of these measures, it is safer on the premises than down the street. The facility does not take sex offenders or arsonists and is mostly focused on helping individuals who have committed heinous crimes because of their dependence on drugs and alcohol. The residents and the alumni are a living testimony of how quickly change can happen.

The nature of such a facility calls for careful planning and design. These folks are being treated for drug dependence and are being trained to become useful citizens. Their lives are not normal and on account of that they carry a lot of anger with them. A mix of well guarded open space along with communal living areas is provided. We also provided a designated area for physical exercise so they can regularly work out and let go of pent-up aggression. The idea is to redirect the anger toward more constructive activities. The kitchen serves up to 300 meals a day and was designed to allow an assembly line at regular times and be efficiently functional for the chefs making so many meals every day. The kitchen is designed to be industrial in nature with a break area for staff and a large organized storage to make their jobs a little easy. They also have several classrooms for vocational and moral training along with private rooms for one on one counseling. The place is designed to serve as an organized live/work space in a very well monitored environment. Other considerations included colors to affect mood and spirits, plenty of light and well integrated open courtyards. We also had to be significantly conscious about elements, small or large, that can be used by the residents to hurt themselves, hide drugs or go back to their addiction. The Foundation works very methodically and the space needs to facilitate their mission on every level. There are several rooms provided for staff, security and private offices for the senior staff. Most of the residents have the mentality of a child and like to have access to the staff at all times, something that is also accommodated in the design. In short the design of the building caters to mental health, attitude and facilitates recovery in an uplifting building environment, meanwhile, supporting the staff’s job and security concerns.

As Bay Area Architects and Designers,  it brings us great pleasure to work on projects that help better our community. We have always believed in second chances but the truth is that the Foundation gives its residents their first chance. It was a pleasure to work for the Foundation knowing and understanding their mission.