Harnessing the power of design to give back

February 28, 2017

Written By: Adèle Rankin

Design, as a career choice, is incredibly rewarding. Seeing a project through its natural life cycle to completion, and all the decision making and problem solving that comes with it, is both challenging and fulfilling. However, it’s easy to get caught up in everyday tasks and we can sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture. For me, design should strive to be about more than delivering an aesthetically pleasing or functioning project. It should be something you can be proud of; something that transcends the typical project parameters. At its very core, the creation of memorable spaces is also the creation of compelling experiences, and sometimes experiences connect with people in positive ways. Knowing this, our team at CHIL Interior Design didn’t hesitate to volunteer our services when approached by Skwachàys Lodge (pronounced skwatch-eyes), a mixed-use community centre and boutique hotel that serves the First Nations community in the underdeveloped Downtown East Side of Vancouver.

As populations continue to grow, particularly within urban centres, so too do the needs of organizations that service marginalized communities; organizations like Skwachàys Lodge. With tight operational budgets and funding reserved for programming, few have the capacity to afford design services and could tremendously benefit from pro bono work from studios like CHIL. The return on investment is twofold – the organizations are better equipped to service the needs of their communities through practical design solutions, and the design studio benefits from an expanded body of work, new client network and a collective sense of purpose in helping a community in need of support.

Fusing local architecture with the spirit of the First Nations

There’s nothing typical about Skwachàys Lodge. The Lodge immediately stands out in its environment with a traditional totem pole on its roof, longhouse carvings, sweat lodge and smudge room. A boutique hotel and urban Aboriginal artist residence, the facility is owned and operated by the Vancouver Native Housing Society (VNHS).

Comprised of 24 shelter rate apartments, Skwachàys Lodge provides housing for First Nations people at risk of homelessness and two community initiatives that support the mission and financial sustainability of the VNHS. Government funding, provided by several federal and municipal initiatives and designed to make marked impacts within local communities, was leveraged to construct the project, which also houses an art gallery displaying Aboriginal pieces and a healing lodge.

“Our team was truly excited about the chance to give back to the community. Knowing how much of an impact the lodge would make on the First Nations community by celebrating its history and supporting its people, we knew this was a special opportunity to offer our expertise.”


Adèle Rankin, CHIL Principal

The top three floors once served travellers and Aboriginal patients travelling to Vancouver from remote areas to receive medical treatment. They have since been transformed into a boutique hotel open to the public to fund future initiatives for the surrounding neighbourhood through generated revenue. The Lodge, named after the traditional reference to this area of Vancouver, creates a positive presence for the First Nations people and stands as an homage to their history within the community.

In partnership with celebrated Native artist Clifton Fred, CHIL translated his art into three separate themes for three of the Lodge’s 18 suites: “Poem”, “Canadiana” and “Collage”. The remaining suites were designed by a number of other firms, each partnered with a local artist in residence. Expressive charcoal and pencil drawings reflect Fred’s personal beliefs and those of Native spirituality, displaying a sacred connection between animals and humans. Strong West Coast imagery defined by painterly and graphic lines weaves poignant visuals from traditional folklore. For Clifton, illustration and poetry exist cohesively to express his emotions and share his experiences.

Transforming the Lodge into a hospitality destination was only accomplished through the collaborative effort of a team of design firms, suppliers, contractors, and sub-trades, all volunteering their services to support a community in need. The result is a positive space for the First Nations people that is helping to transform an often overlooked area of the city. The Lodge stands as a pillar of pride for all involved and is an example of how design can be used to help others and create connections.


Continuing to make a difference

CHIL is building on its portfolio of work with non-profit organizations with the design of a dream bedroom for a 16-year-old girl as part of the Make-A-Wish® initiative. The bedroom will be a beautiful space that reflects her personality and is conducive to healing while she finishes her high school education. Continuing to create real connections within the community – both big and small – is important to CHIL as the team recognizes how every little bit of help counts.