About Trauma-Informed Design

Trauma: Why it’s a problem and what
trauma-informed design can do

Oftentimes, people experiencing homelessness have been subjected to trauma in their lives. Trauma is “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being” (SAMHSA, 2014). Crime, mental disorders, racial discrimination, and violence are contributors to trauma. This condition is often the reason that people engage in coping responses such as withdrawal, denial, emotional outbursts or substance abuse. It is situation that can last many years and is difficult to overcome.

One empirical study examining the prevalence of trauma within homeless populations reported that 100% of its women participants with co-occurring disorders had experienced a life-altering traumatic event. Among male participants, 68.6% also reported trauma histories (Christensen, Hodgkins, Garces, Estlund, Miller & Touchton, 2005). Trauma is widespread, globally speaking. For example, poverty is a strong causation of stress leading to trauma, and approximately 9 percent of the world’s people will likely live in extreme poverty worldwide in 2020 (The World Bank, 2020).

Trauma informed design has arisen alongside the trauma informed care movement emerging from the social work and psychology fields. Principles of trauma-informed design provide actionable guidance intended to help preserve people’s dignity and personal control in the physical environment.

What Is Trauma Informed Design?

Trauma informed design is an emerging concept that does not have a consensus definition nor goals at this time. However, a definition may be gathered around the meaning of trauma-informed care:

“Design actions and implementations that support the strengths-based trauma-informed care framework that is grounded in an understanding of and responsiveness to the impact of trauma, that emphasizes physical, psychological, and emotional safety for both providers and survivors, and that creates opportunities for survivors to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.” (Hopper, Bassuk, & Olivet, 2010).

The broad goal of trauma-informed design is to support a ‘wraparound’ recovery environment that includes the built environment itself along with training, therapies and other support activities for people in need.

Why does addressing trauma through built environment design matter?

Trauma informed design is important because it may help lower the elevated levels of a person’s emotional stress or tension that they are feeling. Lowering these levels provides a heightened opportunity for those that have experienced trauma to successfully move forward with their lives.

Trauma-informed environments can increase levels of safety for clients and staff in that it may reduce the incidence and frequency of coping behaviors such as emotional outbursts. Such environments may also reduce the likelihood of re-traumatization. Through trauma-informed design’s adherence to the principles of traumainformed care, architectural projects may help improve outcomes regarding mental health and substance abuse behaviors (SAMHSA, 2014).

The trauma-informed design approach is built on a series of underlying principles.

1. Physical environment affects an individual’s sense of identity, worth, dignity and empowerment

2. Physical environment has an impact on attitude, mood and behavior. There is a strong link between people’s physiological and emotional state and the physical
environment they are experiencing

3. Through its supportive design for people experiencing trauma, built environments can help people resist retraumatization

What are the 6 human needs principles to consider that address the intentions of trauma-informed design?

There are principles that might be called fundamental human needs that people experiencing trauma and homelessness value and seek out for themselves and their families. Literature talks of this quality of a sense of confidence and trust in the world as ontological security. If applied in appropriate ways through architecture and therapy methods, spaces that embrace these principles can provide users a place to create their plan to exit homelessness in an environment that exudes optimism, calmness and respect that can support their sense of dignity and self.

What are the goals of trauma informed design?

Design Resources for Homelessness has gathered the informed opinions of researchers, as well as the perspectives of social agency directors and advocacy organizations. Below are selected goals with an example of how its principles might be activated through built environment design. There are many strategies that might be used to build these goals into a building project.

Reinforce the individual’s sense of personal identity and ownership


Storage spaces
with locks are essential. Sleeping areas preferably should have lockable storage compartments for belongings as well as a closet tall enough to hang a shirt, trousers, a dress or skirt (Berens, 2016).

Provide an environment that is safe while also inviting


Visual interest
can serve as a distraction from perceived crowding and stress, but too much visual complexity can increase stress and anxiety (Berens, 2016).

Promote opportunity for choice while balancing program needs and the safety/comfort of the majority


Giving residents control over task lighting, such as a reading lighting fixture may support their sense of independence and autonomy (Berens, 2016).

Engage the individual actively in a dynamic, multi-sensory environment


Waiting areas that offer a variety of chair styles and material finishes engage the senses (Jill Pable and Lindsey Slater, Design Resources for Homelessness).

Reduce/remove known adverse stimuli and triggers


Example: Color can have a profound effect on residents’ mood. Avoid sterile, institutional-looking colors and finishes that may remind someone of past events or subconscious states of anxiety. For example, a black-colored metal bunk bed may remind a client of being in prison (Berens, 2016).

Reduce/remove environmental stressors such as noise and crowding


Example: Noise abatement strategies, such as using carpeting on the floor and wallcoverings, should be employed to reduce stress
and provide a quiet, relaxed atmosphere where residents can rest or sleep (Berens, 2016).

Provide ways for the individual to exhibit their self-reliance


Example: Allowing residents to take care of their own needs such as moving furniture or relieving thirst can support autonomy (Berens, 2016).

Provide the means for privacy and confidentiality


Spatial layouts should be simple, linear and easy to navigate. Breaking up space in dormitories to form smaller units, instead of one large open plan or parallel corridors, enhances the overall sense of privacy along with safety. Photo: floor  plan of 10-bed sleeping pods at Austin Resource Center for Homelessness (Design Resources for Homelessness, 2016).

Reinforce the sense of stable and consistent policy support for individuals that is worthy of their trust


Example: Intake and reception areas should be open and welcoming, with visual cues and signage that indicate where lines form and where facilities and service areas are located. Photo: Austin Resource Center for Homelessness (Berens, 2016).

Provide/promote connectedness to the natural world


Example: Plants can be used as both decorative and salutary. Research has shown that settings that include vegetation reduce stress, and promote senses of peace, tranquility, enhanced self-esteem, and a sense of mastery of the environment (Berens, 2016). Design: Jill Pable.

Promote a sense of community and collaboration


Tapping ideas from cognitive psychology, round tables rather than square ones may support more fluid conversation. The Day Station by COTS. Architecture: Duncan Wizniewski Architecture.

Separate an individual from others who may be in distress


Example: Providing a de-escalation room near public spaces can help diffuse tense situations, enhancing the sense of safety (Berens, 2016).

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