Category I: Humanitarian Detention Center


-UNHCR 2015



The Steel Competition seeks to understand the potential of an architecture of alterity by positioning a third-space between difference and the same by redefining ICE, or an Immigration and Custom Enforcement Facility to create a more Humanitarian Design of a Detention Center. Long before Ellis Island opened its doors back in 1892, immigration was a red button issue in the United States. The American Dream has been a desire for people from all over the world for more than two centuries. Today, the number of people displaced worldwide has hit a new record with 65.3 million people forced from their home – the highest number since the Second World War. According to the UNHCR statistics, one person for every 113 is currently displaced from their communities because of conflict, resulting in the largest number of asylum-seekers looking for a better, safer life than ever recorded in history.

For the asylum-seeker or immigrant, the in-between grey area is where the question is being addressed: does this person or family have jurisdiction to be on another countries soil? From the moment of being questioned until the time taken to obtain a definitive answer, a person’s life   is suspended in time. The holding space where a person or family is detained becomes a place for those that need to await their verdict within a controlled environment. While security for the immigrants and proximity to nearby transportation is a high priority, careful design considerations must be made to make sure that each person’s and family’s most basic needs, fears and concerns will be properly handled during detainment. How can we look at the design of a Detention Center—a nonplace that exists between immigrant and citizenship, or difference and the same—as a way to architecturally humanize displacement?


The humanitarian design of the detention center should be guided by the principles of innovation, identity, sustainability, functionality and efficiency. Your proposal should take a strong conceptual position about the changing nature of the detention center as a building type and as a mirror of contemporary culture.   


The building should be sited in close proximity and connection to a major transportation hub that serves both international and domestic traffic. The site is to be chosen by the faculty sponsor and/ or the student including the following criteria:

Size: the site surrounding grounds should be no larger than a single city block. The size should be determined by the story that you want to tell with your design, and should be influenced by the need to create a humanitarian design.

Context: the project site should be located no less than 30-miles from an Airport, Train Station, or Port-Ferry Terminal. Other possible locations to be considered can be strategic highway networks connecting major cities or a potentially more rural border-crossing between two countries.

Access: where possible, the site should have access to public transportation such as light rail, commuter rail, subway, or bus.

The United States government maintains the world’s largest immigration detention system with plans to build several new detention complexes in the next five years, however, there is no clear typology for this building type other than a programmatic cross between a prison, monastery and dormitory. Following are the required building components to be incorporated in the design proposal as a way to reconsider the detention as a place of community rather than of isolation: 

Main Spaces 
1. Visitor and Staff Entry Lobby
2. Visitor Waiting & Reception Area
3. Court Room with Judges chambers
4. Toilets for Public (accessible to Courtroom Space)
5. Public Cafe 

Housing Spaces 
6. Bunk beds for a capacity of approx. 250~300 (double, triple loft, suites for families, etc)
7. Shared dayroom or family sitting room to accommodate 15-20 people
8. Toilet and shower facility (approx. one for every 10- people)
9. Commissary (mail, records, distribution desk, misc items)
10. Dining Hall for inmate/detainees
11. Kitchen
12. Food storage
13. Barber/Hair Salon
14. Laundry Area (5) 

Community - Exercise Spaces 
15. Community Day Room (TV, board games, etc)
16. Basketball Courts (4)
17. Soccer Field (1)
18. Bleachers for indoor sports court/field
19. Exercise Room with weight training, low-impact cardio
20. Locker Room with showers and toilets (male/female) 

Support Spaces 
21. Intake/Release Waiting Area
22. Admission Data Processing Center
23. General Storage Areas for detainees belongs
24. Holding Cell/Detention Areas: for holding detainees
25. Laboratory Spaces (for testing suspicious materials)
26. Administrative Offices
27. Breakroom with small kitchen for Offices/Staff
28. Toilets for Offices/Staff 

Auxiliary Spaces
29. Healthcare (small semi-secure walk-in clinic)
30. Counseling (legal and psychological)
31. Education (children’s classrooms and adult ed)
32. Library (reference and legal)
33. Religious (multiple congregation, meditative space) 

Exterior Spaces 
34. Entry Area: Drop off area (separate inmate/detainees, staff and public);
35. Outside Parking Areas (Surface): Visitor, staff, and service parking areas should be separated. This should be integrated with the open space;
36. Impoundment Areas: for seized vehicles and other large items;
37. Secure walking park for inmate/detainees’ recreation and exercise
38. Secure children’s playground
39. Running track
40. Community vegetable garden 

*This program should be used as guidance; however, it may be adapted as necessary. Submissions that significantly adapt the program and/or relationship between secure, semi-secure and non-secure spaces should provide clarification of space allocations during submission 



Image source: Armando Montilla. Also see:  In the Public Interest: Programs for Not Profits.

Image source: U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, Foreign citizens who want to live permanently in the United States must first obtain an immigrant visa. This is the first step to becoming a lawful permanent resident.

Download Steel Competition Program (PDF)


For questions please contact: 

Eric Wayne Ellis
Allison Smith 
Director of Operations and Programs
Programs Manager
202.785.2324 202.785.2324