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Designing for mental health: How trauma-informed buildings are promoting healing in communities

Generous windows that line walls of this new apartment building in Aurora, Colorado, do more than just flood its hallways and bedrooms in sunlight: They’re part of a suite of design decisions that reflect the unique needs of its residents. Providence at the Heights, or PATH, is a supportive housing facility operated by the prison re-entry nonprofit Second Chance Center; the three-year-old building is filled with apartments for people who have been previously incarcerated.

Designed by the Denver-based architecture firm Shopworks Architecture, the building’s interiors are filled with rich-grained wood beams, offering a calming visual and tactile texture. Dense sound insulation in each apartment provides a welcome change from the aural chaos of prison. Outside, there’s a nod to the powers of biophilia, via a restful patio with a wood pergola.

At first glance, there’s not much here that diverges from standard best practices for any supportive housing project. But there’s an added layer of intentionality and specificity directed toward people who have experienced the criminal justice system. Shopworks’ design for PATH was intensely influenced by trauma-informed design, an emerging discourse in architecture that weds the built environment to the tenets of trauma-informed care, which aims to ease the physical and mental toll from past harm.

The emphasis on trauma-informed-design (TID) explains why Chad Holtzinger, Shopworks founder, and his colleagues needed to have long conversations with Second Chance staffers about things like door handles, to avoid using handles that looked like ones used in prisons. And it’s why the stairwells are wide and have windows.

“That’s pretty important,” says Latif, who was incarcerated for 18 years. “A lot of things have happened in stairwells for a lot of our folks. Those are types of things I wouldn’t have known to ask for.”

With TID, buildings become the “first line of therapy,” says Holtzinger. “We’re raising the awareness [of] how mental health is being neglected by the built environment.”

Trauma-informed design ranges from relatively superficial material and furnishing selections to the programmatic organization of spaces, their security protocols, and lines of sight. It’s most often seen in housing projects, education, and healthcare. But “any setting, any place, any population will benefit from trauma-informed design,” says J. Davis Harte, director of the Design for Human Health master’s program at the Boston Architectural College and a co-founder of the Trauma-Informed Design Society, or TIDS.

The principles set forth in the TID approach start from the bedrock foundations undergirding all architecture — the “delight” portion of the classic trifecta of desirable design attributes attributed to the Roman architect Vitruvius, and the idea that the quality of space affects outlook and mood. TID takes the next step by tying these phenomena to physical and mental health and codifying ways to ease or avoid trauma reactions.

Trauma’s origin points are adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, which can be individual and acute or communal and chronic. Examples include experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect; exposure to substance abuse or mental health problems; and instability due to parental separation. As with most facets of US life, the burden of trauma is distributed unequally by race and class. Black children consistently bear higher ACE scores than white children; the share of kids with two or more ACEs is highest for Indigenous people, at 36.2%.

Because of the stigma that comes with admitting to trauma, clients can be reluctant to pursue TID, says Erin Peavey, who leads design for health and well-being at the architecture firm HKS. The response is often: “Oh, I’m not traumatized,” she says. “So we’ve tried to shift the language to be more about resiliency.”

At PATH, TID is evident in the sensory dimensions of each apartment. Shopworks specified thick sound insulation, not just for privacy but also to ease residents’ hypervigilance to external stimuli. Each apartment features generous windows that face green space; this allows natural light and fresh air to penetrate the space, two features known to boost mood and promote circadian rhythm.

In the common areas, design choices are geared toward fostering a sense of community and minimizing conflict. For instance, the building has a large community kitchen and outdoor barbecue, as well as an outdoor basketball court. Social workers hold regular community meetings and even a Christmas gift exchange. “It’s not just about the physical environment,” says Holtzinger. “It’s also about the social environment.”

For its residents, PATH is a vital lifeline that provides a supportive space where they can begin to heal from past trauma. “It gives people hope, and it gives them the opportunity to start all over again,” says Latif. “It gives them the opportunity to know that they can live in a community with other people and be supportive of one another.”

TID is gaining traction in the design world, driven in part by an increasing awareness of the ways in which the built environment can affect mental and physical health. It’s particularly useful in settings like PATH, where residents have experienced significant trauma. By intentionally designing spaces that are calming, welcoming, and supportive, architects and designers are helping to create environments that aid in the healing process.

The adoption of trauma-informed design principles in architecture and building design has the potential to contribute significantly to the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). By creating spaces that prioritize the physical and mental health of their occupants, architects and designers can help reduce health inequalities and promote well-being, contributing to SDG 3: Good Health and Well-being. Furthermore, buildings that are designed with the principles of TID can foster a sense of community, social cohesion, and inclusion, contributing to SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities. By incorporating TID into their designs, architects and designers are playing a crucial role in creating a more equitable, sustainable, and supportive built environment for all members of global society.


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