How Much is That Doggie (or Kitty) in the Window?
Best Friends Animal Society launches an alternative retail environment—complete with visual moments and an engaging experiential retail vibe—to boost pet adoptions at its new center in Manhattan
While pet adoption centers shelter adorable, loveable, furry friends in need of good homes, the reality is that most of these spaces offer visitors and volunteers alike less-than-appealing experiences. Often, they’re drab, loud and chaotic—they, sadly, look like prisons. But non-profit Best Friends Animal Society is changing that stereotype through a collaboration with Los Angeles-based boutique design practice RA-DA Architects. With the help of designers, the adoption experts have brought a one-of-a-kind shelter-meets-retail experience to New York’s SoHo neighborhood, inspired by the group’s large-scale sanctuary in scenic Kanab, Utah.
The goal was two-prong. First, to beckon passersby to explore the stylish, clean, wood-clad space and change their perceptions of the adoption process to help cats and dogs find their forever homes. Second, to provide a safe, sanitary and calming experience to the animals they house. But further, Best Friends Animal Society created the chic Manhattan storefront as an act of advocacy to educate the public to support their greater mission: to take the United States to a 90 percent save rate by 2025 to end the practice of killing dogs and cats at shelters.
This noble mission and “being able to turn the prototype on its head, being able to do something that is good design and works toward a cause,” was the most rewarding takeaway in designing the shelter, explains Rania Alomar, principal and owner of RA-DA Architects.
The “industry” of animal care facilities has, for years now, been “crying out for good design,” Alomar says, adding that the SoHo location serves as the “front-of-house space” for the larger sanctuary. “This, paired with a back-of-house facility, becomes a new kind of a prototype in animal adoption,” she notes. “The whole store has two focuses—one is the adoption of animals and the second is the messaging and branded environment.”
There was no shortage of design inspiration for the space. The shelter reflects the organization’s expansive sanctuary tucked into Utah’s southwestern desert dotted with red rock formations and lush greenery at a high elevation.
The Utah sanctuary features “amazingly wide-open vistas and rock canyons,” describes Judah Battista, Best Friends Animal Society’s co-founder and chief regional programs officer. So the challenge became how to translate this into a 3,900-sq.-ft. retail space in downtown New York.
RA-DA interpreted a modern, urban reflection of the canyons into the space through a fluid layout and “the idea that you can tell that there’s something more to see just out of sight,” says Battista, adding that it pulls you into and through the space.
“There was a conscientious designing, not just of its function, but of the experience of engaging with that function,” Battista explains. “That was really important to us, because coming to the sanctuary is experiential.” He notes that the goal wasn’t to replicate the 3,000-acre sanctuary, which has more than 1,500 animals, but to take some of the same principles: “That it’s an experience, that it’s potentially a bit unexpected, that it’s an expression of our priorities and values…We have a utilitarian purpose and it’s the design that elevates that,” he says.
In SoHo, the material selection was informed by the imagery of the landscape at the Best Friends Kanab Sanctuary. Warm, natural materials are employed throughout and envelop the path entirely, so that visitors feel as though they are walking through a landscape.
And because an adoption center serves such a specific “retail” purpose, factors from sanitation to acoustics had to be carefully planned, which also impacted the use of materials.
Alomar, whose firm has worked on projects in the shelter sector, notes that functionality isn’t determined just by efficiency, but also by the health of the animals. “To a certain extent, they’re almost like medical spaces,” she says, “There are some precautions that you have to take, so that disease isn’t easily transmitted, so that areas where the animals live and even walk through are really easy to clean and aren’t collecting bacteria.” The difficulty, she adds, in a project like this is the balance between aesthetic and function.
The approach was conceptually dividing the environment into “people space” and “animal space,” Alomar explains. However, there was a limit to that, because the animals are still walking through the people space. “So putting down carpet, for instance, was a no-go,” she laughs.
Beyond the welcoming open entry, the central area and path leading through the facility were lined with a wood tile to match the ceiling’s real wood. With a need for resiliency, the wood tiling, treated with epoxy, runs 18 inches up the wall, a special consideration since dogs may stop in corners to relieve themselves. The cat area also features a series of stacked boxes built from Corian, making them easy to clean and antimicrobial. “They’re almost like fancy showers…We can’t just put a wallcovering on the wall, it has to be like a bathroom,” Alomar explains, adding that the kennels and cats’ free play areas are epoxy with smoothed edges to prevent bacteria from collecting in corners.
A meandering path leads visitors through the center, punctuated with moments of discovery as they progress through the space. Flanking the path through the center are free-play spaces for the cats, a kitten nursery and dog suites—each designed to creatively showcase the animals and allow interaction and engagement. A glass enclosure allows guests to see the cats lounging on stepped boxes inside the cat free-play room, where small letterings on the wall give the animals a playful voice with positive messages like, “Adopt a tiny tiger for your tiny space” and “Admit it, you want to pet me.” Larger graphics reference donors and the goals of Best Friends Animal Society.
As visitors are pulled deeper into the space, further rooms, experiences and opportunities to engage are revealed. At the kitten nursery, visitors can get a close-up view of staffers caring for teeny tiny weeks-old kittens. Just past that area, the path culminates in a room displaying the dog suites around a central space. Partially frosted glass doors with small sniff holes lessen the noise and distraction of people walking through.
While the cats at the front windows are exposed to natural daylight, a fine-tuned programmable LED lighting system helps dogs have a sense of the time of day, which contributes to their overall wellbeing. A subtle dim in the morning has a warmer color temperature and then, as the sun rises outdoors, the light gets brighter and bluer before dimming and warming in the evening again.
“It’s just a small touch that makes the dogs feel like they’re a little bit more connected to the outside,” Alomar reflects. “There’s a certain amount of calm that you don’t typically get with an animal care facility, and that really relates back to the original concept of the space, which is tying back to the Best Friends Sanctuary in Kanab.”
Throughout the space are playrooms and consultation spaces that allow visitors to meet with the animals and complete adoption papers. Meeting booths are wrapped with sound absorption panels. In fact, acoustics were a huge consideration throughout, Alomar explains. When the team first visited the space (which used to be a deli), they could hear the footsteps of residents in the upper floors of the historic building. So the design team incorporated acoustic mitigation that is higher than a normal retail store would have, in addition to enhanced acoustical mitigation in the whole back area of the kennel.
Along the path, bright orange flags mark digital “Action Stations” that identify practical ways for visitors to get involved to support the cause. A media wall prompts people to add their own rescue stories to the greater narrative.
“Most people who have companion animals in their lives think of them as family—[the media wall] is a celebration of that connection and a visual representation of it,” Battista says. “We wanted to make sure that people can participate and do it in a way that’s a celebration of the best things about adopting and having pets in their lives.”
To get back to the main space, visitors pass by a donor wall and a merchandise zone. Not to mention a photo booth area where they can capture their visit against a custom Best Friends backdrop.
On any given day, the SoHo space has around 30 cats, 12 to 15 dogs and anywhere from 10 to 30 kittens, Battista says. The teams were sensitive to avoid the typical loud, visually “hyper-stimulating” and “intrinsically stressful” shelter environment. This meant minimizing unnecessary stimulation, so that animals can relax and have some downtime. The result is that they can more authentically represent who they are, rather than who they are in a stressed out environment, Battista explains.
By encouraging public engagement and keeping it safe and sanitary, visitors are able to focus on the mission and the animals, instead of secondary distractions. “People aren’t burdened by guilt or concern, so they get to really concentrate on the joyful aspects of bringing a new family member into their home,” Battista says.
The space aims to elevate the value of shelter pets and not only engages the public in local action, but also in broader issue awareness, which was essential for Best Friends Animal Society. The alternative retail space is “a solutions-oriented way of engaging in the mission and one that fits in with their daily lives in their neighborhood,” Battista says. He considers SoHo an international neighborhood, and hopes visitors will be inspired to research progress toward no-kill in their own states and countries, and get involved back home.
Alomar says the progressive shelter is “not just about adopting animals, it’s about getting people educated and involved. It’s not a store—it’s definitely a retail experience.”
Best Friends Animal Society
Best Friends Animal Society
Gilsanz Murray Steficek LLP (structural engineer), PowerCon Associates (MEP engineer), Acoustilog Inc., JRH Acoustical Consulting (acoustic consultants), Gallagher & Associates (experiential designer), Frank LaRuffa Sr. (construction manager)
Coronet, Lucifer Lighting, MP Lighting, Designplan, Insight, Rich Brilliant Willing, Modern Forms, Visual Lighting Technologies, Hubbell Lighting
Porcelanosa, Sherwin-Williams, Floormations (entrance flooring)
LG (Hi-Macs countertops)
Camira, Maharam, Sunbrella
Carlisle Wide Plank Floors (wood ceilings)
Formica (plastic laminate)
Acoustical Surfaces Inc.
Information in the project file is provided by the retailer and/or design firm.