Competition Entry for the 2020 James R. Boyce Affordable Housing Competition
January 2020 - May 2020 | ARCH 202 at UC Berkeley
In collaboration with Anna Driscoll, Amanda Fukutome-Lopez, Dori Ganetsos and Lily Oyler

Critical Question:
How can an empathic design approach help designers tackle social issues?

Whiteboarding for Armory Gardens design competition.


Homelessness is a wicked problem. While designing more housing is important, we as designers must tackle the problem with empathy in order to make meaningful impact. My teammates and I held onto this belief as we entered the UC Berkeley competition to develop homeless housing for veterans in Woodlake, Sacramento.

The Homeless Crisis At a Glance*:
people are homeless in the US.
of homeless in the US are found in California.
increase in homelessness per year in Sacramento.
20% of homeless have severe mental illness.
weak social ties increase chance of homelessness.
govt. housing regulations worsen the problem.
* According to Homeless Policy Institute and Acton Institute.


To understand the people and community we are serving, we spent the following few weeks reaching out to stakeholders and residents.

Q1: What are some priorities for developing homeless housing for veterans?
Affordable Housing Developer
Homeless Housing Expert
CA Housing Department Staff
Veteran Service Worker
Q2: How can this development benefit the neighborhood?
Development Advocate
Staff at
NGO for Homeless
Resident Service Manager
Neighborhood Association Organizer

We identified 4 critical design drivers from our interview responses:

Targeted Mixed Demographic
Design for Comfort
Prioritize Safety
Meet Veteran-specific Needs
Create Community


While interviews helped us to understand the needs of the stakeholders, we designed two personas to guide our design process: a formerly homeless veteran tenant and a member from the neighborhood association.

Meet Bill, 67 yo
Formerly homeless veteran
Bill is a Vietnam war veteran who was homeless for a year before receiving supportive housing at Armory Gardens through a local veteran housing non-profit organization. He struggles with PTSD and drug addiction, but is currently connected with services that help address his medical needs. He looks forward to making a new start in life at Armory Gardens.
Veterain supportive services
Stable social ties
Spacious living quarters
Meet Jane, 42 yo
Chair of the Woodlake Neighborhood Association
Jane moved Woodlake with her husband from New England three decades ago and they own an English cottage adjacent to Armory Gardens. She enjoys the secluded suburban lifestyle in the neighborhood and fears that low-income development would impact the safety of her community. She is an active voice in the Neighborhood Association and would consider supporting the project if it provides dedicated community-serving amenities.
Suspicious of development
Worries about safety
Wants community amenities


Borrowing the method of storyboarding in user research, I crafted various spatial vignettes as customized walk-throughs for the two personas developed earlier. We presented these visuals as stories to garner support and feedback from the stakeholders we interviewed in the beginning of the competition.

Scenario 1: Bill moving in to Armory Gardens
Today is Bill’s move-in day. Not having many belongings with him, he arrived at Armory Gardens by the light rail.
He enters the lobby and breathes a sigh of relief. Not only is the space welcoming, he also notices the conveniently located Wellness Center he would be visiting regularly.
Walking down the corridor, he arrives at his studio. He’s happy that the tall ceiling and wood interior makes it feel spacious and he finally has a place to call home!
Scenario 2: Jane visiting the community center
Jane walks over to Amory Gardens to check out the new community center. She’s been worried about the impact of the development on neighborhood safety.
She finds the center well utilized, and people were really enjoying the computers and amenities.
Exiting into the open courtyard, she finds many of her neighbors enjoying the picnic tables. She thought: “This would be a great place to spend her Sunday afternoons!”
Storyboard Graphics: Created in collaboration with Lily Oyler.

Through these stakeholder presentations, we were able to receive feedback from housing and veteran experts while generating enthusiasm among residents for the potential development.