Arroyo Village is an award-winning development with a full spectrum of housing, from a homeless shelter to permanent supportive and affordable housing. Before designing the ambitious Denver community, Chad Holtzinger was invited by leaders at The Delores Project to a training about the care model that the organization was implementing at the shelter.
“I left the training astonished about how little the design profession really knows or thinks about mental health,” recalls Holtzinger, president of Shopworks Architecture. It pushed him to learn about trauma-informed design, and he’s now integrated the key concepts at Arroyo Village and a number of other communities. His firm has also written several research papers on the topic.
The genesis of the approach comes from the trauma-informed care movement, which seeks to acknowledge the widespread impact of trauma on people and integrate this understanding into paths for ending a person’s unhoused crisis, as well as integrate knowledge about trauma into different practices.
Trauma-informed care principles have imparted ideas of empowerment, autonomy, and collaboration into design considerations for the built environment, says Jill Pable, founder and project lead for Design Resources for Homelessness, a nonprofit that interprets research into practical strategies that designers can use to promote trauma-informed design in order to help people manage crisis effectively.
“All of those things add various creative ways that can be made manifest in architectural spaces,” she says. “It can be small things such as the lighting that is present in a bathroom. Does the lighting make someone feel empowered for their job interview that day, offering good skin color, or does it emphasize the bags under a person’s eyes? Does someone have the ability to get safely to the bathroom at night in shared facilities with night lighting? Does someone have the ability to store their belongings in a secure way?”
Trauma-informed design is an especially important framework for developing supportive housing for people who have experienced homelessness or other traumas. However, the team at Shopworks Architecture likes to underscore the reality that trauma is ubiquitous—the COVID-19 pandemic being an example, making trauma-informed design relevant to all of us.
“At the fundamental level, trauma-informed design means that we are honoring that part of people’s healing and recovery,” says Ariana Saunders, associate director of CSH’s Training Center. “It’s about living in spaces that feel safe and supportive to them. It’s a big part of why we do what we do. It’s intentional because we know when people feel safe and supported they’re going to remain housed and are going to be more successful.”
Trauma-informed design is part of the curriculum at CSH’s Supportive Housing Institute, a training program for developers and service providers.
While it’s important to recognize that everyone’s experiences are different and that there’s no single template for incorporating trauma-informed design into a building, Affordable Housing Finance asked industry experts to share several best practices and key concepts that can serve as an introduction.
It’s critical to listen to potential residents as well as the people who will be working in the building to understand their needs. “Getting feedback is a key element,” says Saunders.
Holtzinger also stresses the importance of giving people an opportunity to create their environment. He regularly urges developers to spend time conducting interviews to gain a deeper understanding of people’s needs “That takes time, and it needs to be completed or close to completed before the design work truly begins because you want to fuse that into the process as early as practical,” he says.
Trauma-informed design really doesn’t add to a project’s price tag unless you’ve made false assumptions and need to make changes later in the process, he says.
Hierarchy of Needs
In the early stages of a project, Holtzinger says he likes to think about psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which starts with basic physiological needs like food, water, and shelter at the base. However, Maslow’s theory believes that there are four other levels of need—safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. With trauma-informed design, the pendulum swings from basic shelter and not doing harm to a space that promotes healing, hope, and thriving. It’s imagining a place for living fully.
“As a guideline for designers, it’s important because a lot of decisions that designers make can have a confounding effect on the ability for one to connect with others,” Holtzinger says.
Pable and other experts explain that trauma-informed design is not just one design change in a building. Instead, it’s a series of multiple changes and steps that make a place feel inviting and comfortable, often involving lighting, finishes, color palettes, and the sense of volume in a space. Intuitive signage can help someone navigate a new place.
For someone who has been without a home, the idea of stepping into a new building can be very intimidating, as unhoused persons can often be victims of physical assault or abuse. “One of the biggest choices somebody has to make is whether to go inside or not and ask for services,” says Pable. “Some places are more welcoming than others.”
Glass doors or windows that allow a person to see inside and preview a space before they come in may support a sense of safety in users, according to Pable.
At a reception counter, it may also help if a person can perch their belongings on the counter to keep an eye on them, she adds.
Holtzinger and officials at The Delores Project also recognized the importance of the entrance, so individuals walking into the building are greeted by an immediate path to exit the building. “There’s an out,” Holtzinger says. “There’s a visual sightline and a way out so it’s welcoming in that way.” Guests also encounter a comfortable living room space with wood times.
Wide hallways and clear sightlines throughout can also help people feel safer and less claustrophobic.
Materials and Lighting
Materials and colors influence the way people feel in a room. Anything that resembles a hospital or a police station can be very triggering, so trauma-informed design strives to “deinstitutionalize” a setting. Amenity spaces, in particular, often incorporate natural materials like woods and textiles into the room. “We’re usually looking for more craftier materials,” Holtzinger says.
Rooms with good natural light can often help people feel safer.
Access to dedicated outdoor space is often very important to residents. “We’ve started to talk about these areas as four distinct buckets—smoking, pets, kids, quiet,” says Jennifer Wilson, director of research and impact at Shopworks Architecture.
The development team may weigh giving each bucket its own space and consider their proximity and relationship to one another.
Smoking isn’t good for your health, but it is a form of soothing and a form of socialization for many people, says Holtzinger. Many people like to sit outside and smoke while talking with their neighbors.
Gardening is another way for residents to connect.
Shopworks Architecture and other firms have also extended trauma-informed design into individual units. A key is to make residents feel safe in their units, so at The Delores Apartments, a 35-unit supportive housing development at Arroyo Village, a break was created in the wall between the living room and bedroom to provide visibility throughout the space. Large windows also provide views of the courtyard and street.
Interviews with residents may also reveal if dimmable light switches or blackout shades are important amenities in their homes. “The key being choice, personalization, ownership,” says Wilson.
Instilling a sense of ownership can help promote identify and self-esteem, agrees Pable. There are different ways a developer can do this. One example is to include built-in shelves or blank picture frames on walls, which can encourage people to share images important to them and broadcast their identity to others. Such tactics can promote a positive sense of territoriality, support self-esteem, and build relationships with others.
“There are diverse ways to be creative and supportive that are not necessarily expensive but are very meaningful to people who are in crisis,” Pable says.
It’s also often a good idea to perform a review about a year after a building opens to find out what’s worked and areas in need of improvement. Interviews with residents and staff can provide insight into future projects and offer lessons for the larger affordable housing industry.