In the world of architecture, the focus has traditionally been on functionality, aesthetics, and efficiency. However, an emerging and compelling approach called trauma-Informed Design’ is reshaping how we think about our built environment. Trauma-Informed Design recognizes that the spaces we inhabit play a crucial role in shaping our emotional well-being and experiences, especially for those who have endured trauma. Architecture possesses the transformative power to either intensify or soothe the effects of trauma by manipulating environmental stimuli and atmospheres. As we delve deeper into this innovative concept, we explore how it actively supports healing, growth, and well-being, transcending beyond mere shelter to become a catalyst for positive change in people’s lives.

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Trauma’s Impact on the Mind_DariaNK/iStock

The Body-Mind Connection

Trauma lives and operates through the body, triggering immediate physiological stress responses before cognitive processing takes place. The body’s innate responses to its surroundings are instinctual and often occur before conscious thought. For those who have experienced trauma, their bodies signal ‘danger’ even before their minds process the situation, leading to fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses. Architecture can modulate these stress responses by carefully curating environmental stimuli and atmospheres. By doing so, the built environment becomes a powerful tool to either exacerbate or alleviate the effects of trauma on individuals.

Fostering Safety and Connection

Trauma can lead individuals to develop strong attachments to familiar inanimate objects, even more so than with other people. This interesting phenomenon underscores the significant role that architecture can play in the healing process. When designed with care, the spaces we inhabit can promote a sense of safety and connection, allowing buildings to become a source of comfort and support for those who have experienced trauma. In this way, thoughtful design can facilitate the healing journey for individuals who have endured difficult experiences.

The Principles of Trauma-Informed Design (TID)

Trauma-Informed Design goes beyond just focusing on the physical aspects of a building. It’s a collaborative approach that involves architects, designers, researchers, and change-makers in the social outcomes field. The main goal is to develop spaces that prioritize safety, respect, community, and dignity while also reducing negative emotional responses and supporting overall well-being. This approach centers around people, making sure that design choices are influenced by psychological and cultural research. By considering the experiences of all individuals, Trauma-Informed Design aims to create environments that truly cater to people’s needs and well-being.

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Features of Trauma-Informed Design_POAH Resilient Communities

A Denver-based architectural firm, Shopworks Architecture, has been a leader in formalizing and categorizing an architectural language for TID through three reports funded and supported by the University of Denver Center for Housing and Homelessness Research and the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority. 

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Works by Denver-based Shopwork Architecture on Trauma-Informed Design_Shopworks Architecture
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Works by Denver-based Shopwork Architecture on Trauma-Informed Design_Shopworks Architecture
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Works by Denver-based Shopwork Architecture on Trauma-Informed Design_Shopworks Architecture

Within the framework of Trauma-Informed Design, three key concepts are critical: sensory boundaries, nested layers, and identity anchors. These principles seek to address complex needs and recontextualise design decisions in a trauma-informed context.

Sensory Boundaries

Traumatised individuals may have sensory triggers that can lead to emotional distress. Sensory boundaries encourage designers to use materials, textures, and lighting that modulate the way stimuli present themselves in a space. By thoughtfully addressing sensory elements, spaces become more conducive to healing and well-being.

Nested Layers

No two individuals experience trauma in the same way, making flexibility in design paramount. Nested layers involve carefully designing spaces that offer diverse programs, providing opportunities for refuge, security, and agency without overstimulation. Tailoring spaces to individual needs allows for a more inclusive and supportive environment.

Identity Anchors

Many trauma survivors struggle with feelings of worthlessness, making it essential to design spaces that foster empowerment and a strong sense of identity. Incorporating cultural belonging and self-expression elements into design interventions helps individuals recognize and embrace space as their own, dispelling notions of insignificance.

Exemplary Cases of Trauma-Informed Design

At its core, Trauma-Informed Design emerges from the efforts of a dedicated research team based in Denver. This transformative approach is built upon six fundamental values: hope, dignity, connection, joy, peace of mind, empowerment, safety, and security. These values are further distilled into what is known as the ‘three C’s’: choice, community, and comfort. By integrating organizing principles, sensory boundaries, nested layers, and identity anchors, design interventions are purposefully directed toward creating spaces that foster healing and offer support for individuals who have experienced trauma.

The following examples serve as powerful demonstrations of how Trauma-Informed Design principles have been thoughtfully incorporated into diverse projects.

The Stella Apartment Building

Location: Denver’s Globeville neighbourhood

The Stella is an apartment building developed by Gorman & Company and Laradon. It comprises 132 units, ranging from two- to four-bedroom apartments. The design incorporates essential amenities such as leasing offices, a captivating outdoor courtyard with a play structure and covered patio, and indoor spaces featuring the work of local artist Jolt. Additionally, the ground-floor space is dedicated to Laradon’s operational programs.

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A welcoming lobby at The Stella project in Denver, designed by Shopworks with sound-absorbing materials_Matthew Staver/Shopworks
A courtyard prioritizing outdoor gathering, part of The Stella project in Denver_Matthew Staver/Shopworks

The St. Francis Warren Residences

Location: Denver

The St. Francis Warren Residences is a unique supportive housing facility transformed from a former Methodist church by Shopworks. The architects prioritized design choices by creating a small satellite sitting area on the upper floor of a double-height atrium, which is visually connected but spatially distant from a communal kitchen.

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A century-old church adaptively reused as supportive housing, known as Warren Residences in Denver_ Matthew Staver/Shopworks

Arroyo Village

Location: Colorado

Arroyo Village stands as a groundbreaking project in Colorado, encompassing a continuum of care for individuals experiencing housing instability. Developed in partnership between Rocky Mountain Communities and The Delores Project, the project includes a 60-bed homeless shelter, 35 one-bedroom apartment units for supportive housing, and 95 units of workforce apartments in varying sizes (1, 2, and 3-bedroom). The design focuses on integrating counseling and support services into both indoor and outdoor amenities, ensuring a holistic Trauma-Informed Design perspective is implemented throughout.

Arroyo Village in Denver_Shopworks Architecture
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Soothing Interior of Arroyo Village_Shopworks Architecture
Calming interior of Arroyo Village_Shopworks Architecture

PATH (Providence at the Heights)

Providence at the Heights is an apartment complex located in Aurora and managed by the Second Chance Center. It consists of 50 one- and two-bedroom apartments that provide supportive housing. The ultimate goal of Providence at the Heights is to offer a stable and supportive living environment to individuals who have been through incarceration, helping them reintegrate into society and improve their overall well-being.

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The PATH building designed to convey safety and security for residents who have been incarcerated_Matthew Staver/Shopworks
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A common room with natural surfaces and abundant daylight at the PATH supportive housing complex in Aurora, Colorado_Matthew Staver/Shopworks
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Wide, open hallways designed to avoid associations with prison life at PATH_ Matthew Staver/Shopworks

Wrapping Up!

Trauma-Informed Design represents a paradigm shift in how architects approach their work, recognizing the profound impact that the built environment can have on the healing process of trauma survivors. Architects and designers can actively contribute to the well-being and recovery of trauma survivors by incorporating principles that prioritize safety, respect, community, and dignity. This people-centred design approach has the potential to create spaces that inspire hope, empower individuals, and foster resilience in the face of adversity. As the concept of trauma-informed design evolves and expands, it has the potential to transform architecture into a powerful tool for healing and driving positive social change. 

References:

Inman Thesis 2014 Design for dignity (no date) Share and Discover Knowledge on SlideShare. Available at: https://www.slideshare.net/JordanInman/inman-thesis-2014-design-for-dignity (Accessed: 27 July 2023). 

Mortice, Z. (2023) How trauma-informed design can create healing architecture, Bloomberg.com. Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2023-04-10/how-trauma-informed-design-can-create-healing-architecture (Accessed: 27 July 2023). 

Shopworks portfolio: Shopworks Architecture in Denver, CO (2022) Shopworks Architecture. Available at: https://shopworksarc.com/works/ (Accessed: 27 July 2023). 

Trauma informed design (no date) Basis of Design. Available at: https://www.poahbod.org/trauma-informed-design#general-info-tid (Accessed: 27 July 2023). 

Trauma-informed design (2023) Shopworks Architecture. Available at: https://shopworksarc.com/tid/ (Accessed: 27 July 2023). 

Author

An architecture student who has a soft spot for literature, travel, and all things adventurous! Writing for her is not merely a pastime but a way to explore and articulate her passion for architecture. Always eager to learn, she approaches every opportunity with curiosity and enthusiasm.