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The Aya: Thoughtful architectural design for homeless families in D.C.


The Aya is the type of initiative that every city needs: an inviting, dignified, and aesthetic center for impoverished families. The affordable housing project by Studio Twenty-Seven Architecture and Leo A Daly, located on one of Washington’s oldest arterial corridors, provides short-term emergency shelter for up to 50 families. Its seven-story ziggurat shape, which was created to maintain the tree canopy and enhance daylight, glistens with a glazed north façade that faces the Capitol, while the south façade’s checkerboard pattern of windows shows an interior with a mellow color scheme.

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The Aya , a short-term family housing site in Ward 6 was a cornerstone of Homeward DC which is a visionary plan of Mayor Muriel Bowser to eradicate homelessness. It kept the momentum going toward revamping the District’s crisis response system for homeless families.

Unloved plot brimming with potential

The Aya is located on a triangular island in Ward 6 in Southwest D.C., a remnant of L’Enfant’s radial layout, whose axis to the Capitol dome was long ago disturbed by the Southwest Freeway. According to reports, it was the most unloved piece of property in Ward 6. It was, however, teeming with possibilities for Studio27. According to the project lead and associate principal at Studio 27, Jacob Marzolf, “From a design perspective, we saw the site as a great opportunity because it’s rare in D.C. with new construction to have all four sides open to light and views.”

Building with no “front” or “back”

The building has no “front” or “back,” as desired by the current community. The neighborhood did not want the facility to have an institutional vibe. They wanted it to blend in with the area’s style. Each of the building’s four elevations is totally distinct: the calm east facade has screened outdoor play areas on each floor; the terraced west exterior creates a green patio area for every unit; the glassy north facade has community rooms on each floor with panoramic views of the Capitol. The dynamic south facade frames the doorway to the medical clinic.

The Aya

Preservation of the existing green space

According to Jacob Marzolf, a resident advisory board helped the architectural design team in identifying the most crucial facets of the local setting before the commencement of the project. The community informed the architectural team that the design needed to be compact and tall rather than sprawling over the property in order to protect the existing green space on site. The open area at the north end of the property, which was formerly held by the National Park Service, is preserved by the Aya and is bordered by the small island lot.

Sustainable and environmental-friendly design

The ziggurat form structure maximizes natural light and vistas while protecting the existing tree canopies. A green roof, high-efficiency windows, an HVAC system, and plumbing fittings are just a few of the energy-saving and environmentally friendly elements incorporated into the design of the site. The structure is meant to enhance the skyline of Southwest Washington, DC while providing the tenants with the best possible living environment.

Thoughtful designing

In order to prevent columns from being placed in the corner of the ziggurat-shaped massing, the building was erected on a post-tensioned concrete framework. For the unhindered viewshed along LEnfant’s Delaware Avenue, an original arterial street from the French urban designer and architect who created the Washington, D.C., city grid, the cantilevered corners subtly conceal structural features. Because of careful planning, there are separate entrances for the temporary housing and the current clinic, which the neighborhood requested for the project.

Distinct color scheme for each floor

Accent walls within the units as well as in the different communal spaces follow a color scheme that is unique to each level. This facilitates easier navigation and enhances the sense of community. According to the jury of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the Aya is “a lively composition of form with thoughtfully organized spaces and playful use of color without excess.”

The Aya

Amenities available at the Aya

There are separate common areas, laundry facilities, monitoring stations, individual restrooms, and family bathrooms on each Aya’s floor. To avoid carrying children down elevators to reach outside play spaces, the designers included them on each floor. Administrative spaces, a computer room, an exam room, a dining area, and a federally qualified health service clinic are all located on the ground floor.

Critical Recognition

2020 AIA DC; Award of Excellence

2020 AIA DC Washingtonian; Distinctive Residential Architecture

2020 VA AIA; Merit Award for Excellence in Architecture

2021 Residential Magazine Merit Award in Affordable Housing

2021 Chicago Athenaeum American Architecture Award

2022 AIA National Housing Award for Architecture


The Aya is not a typical expression of a shelter home. This is what makes it unique and interesting. The place exudes respect, empathy, and optimism for the inhabitants.

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Murryam Hafeez

I am a Transportation Engineer by profession and also a voracious reader. I read everything, from novels to the ingredients written on my jar of peanut butter.
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