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[With Video] How a young team shaped a new home for a mental health center

September 10, 2020

Codesigning with young adults, for young adults. Our team works to translate an impactful meeting into a successful design.

Young adults designing for young adults. That’s what’s happening at Stella’s Place, a young adult mental health center in Toronto, Ontario. Stella’s Place, a registered charity, provides free, comprehensive services for people aged 16 to 29 who are experiencing mental health challenges. These include clinical treatment, group therapies, peer support and navigation, creative arts, fitness and wellness, as well as a free, online support app called Bean Bag Chat. Stella’s Place supports 1,500 young adults and their families each year.

Now, as the Stella’s Place community moves to a new location, a group of Stantec team members under the age of 35—including architect Robyn Whitwham and intern architect James Strong—are helping community members envision the design.

Our team’s youthful perspective had a big impact on the design process. They brought this fresh perspective to a visioning session involving Stella’s Place staff members and participants. In a visioning session, the goal is to understand what end users want from the building—and what makes that building unique to them. 

What a rewarding experience! Our young team on the Stella’s Place project discuss what it’s like to co-design with community members from the young adult mental health centre in Toronto.

So, what’s it like to design for your peers? Our team sat down to discuss the project and visioning session. 

Stella’s Place features young people working on a design for other young people. What perspective do you bring to it?

Robyn: We’ve either had similar experiences, facing mental health barriers like anxiety or depression, or we have friends that have. We’re in the same age group and grew up in the same environment as the young people who rely on Stella’s place, so we have a strong connection with them. If somebody asks me to design a house in the hottest place in the world, in the desert where there are no resources, I can research and do it. But wouldn’t it be better if someone who lives there designed it? It’s the same thing in this situation. Somebody could come in and do research to understand the needs of young adults facing mental health challenges, but if young people with lived experience are actually meaningfully engaged in the codesign process, the results will be that much more impactful.

James: Every project evolves out of a series of conversations. In a lot of ways, it’s the most fundamental aspect of design. I think, in many ways, we are speaking the same language as the Stella’s Place community. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to assume that the three of us understand, for example, social media and its mental health implications—anxiety, depression, self-esteem—more intimately than our office leadership. Our role is to listen—and keep listening—and then, when Stella’s Place has told us everything they’ve wanted us to hear, we’ll internalize and interpret those conversations into a new home.

The new Stella’s Place in Toronto. Stella’s Place provides free, comprehensive services for people aged 16 to 29 who are experiencing mental health challenges.

As a young team, how does it feel to be leading a project like this?

James: It’s exciting. Our leaders are passionate about giving clients the most appropriate design teams. In this case, we saw an opportunity to step up and shape a project for our generation.

One of my friends has been there, and it has helped her. That was a rewarding moment—because now this project is coming into my personal life.

How was the Stella’s Place visioning session unique?

James: Our main goal, going into the first visioning session, was to give everyone the opportunity to speak and be heard. It was as much about initiating a conversation within the Stella’s Place community as it was about having a conversation with us. This is a big community with diverse opinions and priorities. Our job was to familiarize ourselves and our client with the process of achieving consensus.

Tell us about your approach to the comments received during the session.

James: Nothing is off the table, and we don’t put constraints around people’s input. It’s more about a feeling than anything else. If someone says, “I want a roller coaster at Stella’s Place,” you’re like, “OK, you want it to be fun, and light, and exciting. I can’t literally build you a water park, but what I can do is take some of the things that you’re feeling—the free associations you’re making—and pull them back into the design of the building.”

Robyn: You can’t be afraid to promise too much. It’s not about that. We also really benefited from the fact that part of the program at Stella’s Place includes a lot of talking and group therapy. The participants and the staff are used to verbalizing how they feel and what they want. So, there were no moments of silence. 

Stella’s Place staff and participants take part in a visioning session, as they brainstorm ideas about the new center’s design with Stantec team members.

How are you continuing to communicate with the community?

Robyn: There’s a Pinterest board where we pin ideas. Stella’s community members have a log-in, and they can pin ideas to it. We also met a participant of Stella’s Place at the visioning session, and he spent the entire time sketching. Then, he made a YouTube video of all his sketches—envisioning how the future roof garden might look—and sent it to me. It was awesome.

Can you recall rewarding moments that you’ve experienced with this project so far?

Robyn: I was talking to a friend about this project. I hadn’t named it, but I mentioned that it’s a local youth mental health center. She said, “Oh, Stella’s Place. I used that a lot when I first moved to Toronto.” To me, that was such a personal connection. One of my friends has been there, and it has helped her. That was a rewarding moment—because now this project is coming into my personal life.

The café at the new home of Stella’s Place echoes the vibrant, inclusive, and informal character of the café space in the former building.

How does it feel working on this project, and how is it different from others you’ve worked on?

Robyn: I have so much respect for the work that Stella’s Place does, and it amplifies my passion for this project—it’s pretty amazing when your client is your source of inspiration for the design. In our visioning sessions, the young adults answered our questions so honestly, even when it put themselves in a vulnerable position, that it gave us a sense of trust in our architect-client relationship. We’re thankful for that honesty and trust because it doesn’t always happen in every project.

James: Stella’s Place is overflowing with energy, passion, and purpose. This kind of enthusiasm and engagement is the stuff we dream of.

Stay tuned to hear more from this team, as they help to make a new Stella’s Place location a reality.


About Stella’s Place

Welcome to The Future of Mental Health: a new era where people aged 16 to 29 can access the help they need—when they need it. Located in downtown Toronto, Stella’s Place offers free, welcoming, inclusive, barrier-free access to programs and services that support young adults in their wellness. Stella’s Place offers a unique model where young adults can choose the programs that they decide are a fit for their recovery. Simply put, no other organization does what Stella’s Place does. As a registered charity, Stella’s Place relies on the generosity of individuals, corporations, foundations, and government to keep their doors open. To donate, visit To find out more, follow Stella’s Place on Facebook (@StellasPlaceCanada), Twitter (@stellasplaceca), Instagram (@stellasplaceca), and LinkedIn (@Stella’s Place).

  • Robyn Whitwham

    Working in healthcare and community support services, Robyn is an architect located in Toronto. Her approach to finding creative solutions is through information-based and data-driven design.

    Contact Robyn
  • James Strong

    James works with our project architects to develop building designs from concept through construction for many of our education projects.

    Contact James
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