Outside the Box: Ronald McDonald 'House in the Woods'

Building a multifamily “home away from home” for families of seriously ill children demonstrates the importance of building a sense of community through support, socialization and shared experience

Building a multifamily “home away from home” for families of seriously ill children demonstrates the importance of building a sense of community through support, socialization and shared experience. The House in the Woods, a Ronald McDonald House® in Oak Lawn, Il. provides anxious families a warm and nurturing place of refuge and respite.

©Doug Snower Photography

The three-story green and gold house, nestled in a grove of trees, greets families upon arrival and expresses the very essence of home. To accommodate drop-offs, a circular drive with a slender port cochêre and tree canopy leads visitors directly to the front door. Just to the right of the entrance, a playful yet carefully considered tree house peeks out, capturing the imagination of children of all ages. Great care went into the imagery, playfulness, public spaces, and thoughtful plan of the 21,000 square foot, 16-bedroom House in the Woods. Iconographic and symbolic elements, including the way the front elevation resembles a child’s drawing of a house, are easily appreciated and understood by children and their caregivers.

Two Chicago firms were awarded the project. Award-winning firm Architecture Is Fun, Inc., which has been recognized for creating architecture for children and families, collaborated with Constantine D. Vasilios and Associates who are experts in house-making. “It was critical that this multifamily house be a healing place for families at a most extraordinarily stressful time,” says Peter Exley, FAIA, of Architecture Is Fun, Inc. The team collaborated with staff, parents, hospital, and community to envision a welcoming and supportive home away from home—one where the quantifiable parameters of program, accessibility, schedule and budget were thoughtfully balanced with the qualitative sense of community, place, well-being, security and reassurance.

The designers mapped programmatic concerns and connections, which helped determine the sensitive sequence of dropping-off, welcoming, directing, daily living, and settling in. Yet, it was the mapping of experience to function that created a 4D program, one that interweaves values and qualities with the architectural program. “The house brings the serenity that families are looking for,” concurs Mary Agnes Laguatan, Director of Programs and Services for RMCHI-CNI. “We wanted the house to be welcoming, where families could find a place to rest and to have some playfulness for kids. It is warm and inviting. It is a design that embraces the family.”

©Doug Snower Photography

Families find their way around the house immediately and intuitively, with its straightforward layout of public spaces: expanded kitchen, dining room, living rooms and central staircase winding around the three-story fireplace. Larger collective spaces for socializing are balanced by smaller intimate places for private reflection. “Our families are under a great deal of stress,” notes Laguatan. “They need comfortable beds and pleasant rooms to relax in, and a variety of spaces. Some folks want to share; others want to be by themselves. The architects have created beautiful spots for families to relax in, little nooks and crannies. It gives you that intimate feel.”

Within the House in the Woods, public spaces were considered assets, not amenities. Unique social spaces with easy access to services were provided to draw people into communal areas. Parents having coffee or checking email have clear visibility into the vibrant playroom to monitor children engaged in play. Lounges on each floor feature comfy chairs, sofas and natural light. The chef style kitchen with oversized buffet counter, natural wood flooring, and chef’s table allows volunteers to work together—cooking and serving hot meals—while book-ended cooking zones permit individualized family use. The kitchen functions easily for other shared experiences, from baking to arts and crafts.

Nature and sustainability are inextricably linked, with careful placement of the house on its site to limit removal of existing trees and a green roof atop the porte cochêre. The careful site placement and partial green roof help reduce heating, cooling, and lessen storm water run-off, important in an area known for flooding. Other sustainable elements include recycled content carpeting, recycled antique flooring, ENERGY STAR appliances, recycled and natural content furnishings and fabrics and low-flow bathroom fixtures.

©Doug Snower Photography

“This Ronald McDonald House will keep families together when they need each other most. By building this house, we are changing lives,” says Bill Keyser, RMHC-CNI Board of Directors. The House in the Woods is truly of particular relevance to the children and families who must call it HOME.

Peter J. Exley, FAIA and Sharon Exley, MAAE founded the award-winning firm Architecture Is Fun in 1994 to design experience and brand-based architecture, environments, public spaces, and events for play, living, and learning within the United States and internationally. Seeing play and entertainment as a necessary part of residential living, they have created a menu of play spaces and play-based furnishings for recreation and leisure time pursuits for kids of all ages. The Exleys also founded Fun Finders, a procurement company for art, furnishings and decor.