The Buildings That Heal

Nov 14, 2023 | News

Imagine what a homeless shelter for women or a facility for women who have just left prison would look like. Perhaps it would be institutional, utilitarian and no-frills. It was thrown together without much thought. How would residents feel if this were the case?

A new architectural movement called trauma-informed (TID) has been created to counterbalance the dehumanising design. It’s gaining momentum, and creating beautiful buildings for those who need them most. “We design spaces to anticipate a person’s stress triggers or potential triggers and work with the design to mitigate this,” says Christine Cowart. She is co-founder of.

TID can have a large impact in the US where more than 60% of adults have experienced a traumatic event by the time they are 18. TID may have a greater impact on specific groups, such as those who were homeless or who had been in the justice systems, where there are likely to have been abuse and trauma.

The practice is relatively new, as early work on design for homelessness began only 10 years ago. It has not been studied in depth enough to determine if its benefits can be assessed beyond anecdotes. TID is being measured in schools and universities that have implemented it to see if it has an impact on academic results and behaviour.

Laurel House in Colorado, US, is designed to foster human connection. Image: Matthew Staver

There are some principles that apply to all groups. TID guidelines are against dark corners and stairwells that make it difficult to see people, as well as acoustics in traditional buildings.

Other important design elements can include ensuring people don’t feel restricted, especially for those who have just left prison, or soundproofed walls so that survivors of domestic violence can speak about their experiences in private, without losing sight their children playing outside. Communal spaces can be used to encourage socialising, and improve relationships with support staff.

“Positive relationship-building is essential,” says Harte. “Without it, it’s another beautiful building.”


Three buildings that heal

1. Alternatives to prison for women and their children in England

Hope Street is a safe alternative to prison for women and children who are low-risk, non-violent. Image: Fotohaus

Lilly Lewis didn’t want green bed linen at in Hampshire, England. “When you enter prison, you are given a bag,” she says. Green bedding is included in the basic items, like a plastic cup and bowl. She says that nothing should remind residents of prison.

The project is for women who are ‘justice involved’, including those released from prison or on remand. It also includes a creche, community rooms, and a garden. The project also includes a coffee shop that is open to the general public.

Edwina Grosvenor, founder of the charity One Small Thing hopes that it can be replicated throughout the country. She has been working in prison reform for many years, but it is a complex and dysfunctional system.

“It’s about light, space, airiness. The feeling of not being confined and trapped”

“If I wanted change, why not try to build a brand new system?” We want to create a model that will reduce the number non-violent women with low-risk who are sent to prison. They don’t have to be there and they don’t have to remove their children unless it is absolutely necessary.

It’s also a place that is warm and welcoming for the staff. The design features calming colours and natural elements like wood and plants. It also includes curves instead of sharp points. Grosvenor says that the design is about airiness, light and space. It’s not about feeling trapped or confined.

Grosvenor says that the issue of “safety”, not only psychological safety, was also important. “Abusive partners could show up on site, which is an issue we face,” he said.

Many women in prison have never lived in an environment that was safe. Hope Street wants to change this. The soundproofing and privacy of certain rooms was also important, as women might have difficult and confidential discussions with probation officers and counselors.

The planning has taken several years. Lewis, a woman’s organisation worker who served an eight-year prison sentence, was one of the advisors.

“I realised they were producing something I’d envisioned while in custody,” she says. “If we want to heal women, we’re not going to heal them in a metal box, and lock them up for hours on end. “


2. The shelter for homeless families in the US

Portland’s Family Village Shelter is designed to give residents agency. Image: Aaron Leitz

Often, families who once lived in Portland, Oregon (US), return to visit. Brandi Tuck is the executive director for the housing charity Path Home that runs the shelter. She says she sees children who “can’t wait to come back. They want to play, see their friends, see the staff and I think for them, [the shelter has been] a very positive experience.”

In 2018, the charity purchased an old church to create a refuge for homeless families. Before that, they used makeshift spaces where families were required to leave each day. The space was transformed into a shelter for up to seventeen homeless families.

“They come here and find this peaceful refuge where they feel dignity and worth”

Jessica Helgerson was the designer of the interior. She had never heard of trauma informed design, but it wasn’t a big leap. “Either by instinct or luck, we followed many of these principles – a calm color palette, lots and lots of curves, natural forms, and the use of natural wooden.”

The curved half-walls in the main space create cosy areas while allowing people to see what is happening in the rest. Tuck believes the quality of the space allows people to “get out their survival mode and into their critical-thinking mind”.

Families stay at the shelter for an average of 87-days, which is shorter than traditional facilities. 96% move to permanent housing after they leave.

Many of the families are people of color, with a majority of them working. It is their first experience being homeless, a combination of expensive housing, childcare and low-paid jobs.


3. The apartment block for homeless teenagers, US

Laurel House in Colorado, US, is a refuge that provides shelter for young people who were homeless. Image: Matthew Staver

The building in Colorado, US which opened in 2020. It has 34 apartments and currently houses 46 residents aged between 18 and 24. The communal areas are divided into ‘nesting layers,’ or, as Holtzinger explains, “big social spaces with moderate spaces on the side and small ones off the side of that, so you can sidle into an activity or event, but don’t have to be a part of it. You can watch and get comfortable with everybody.”

Visual sightlines are important “so that staff can always be aware of where children and other staff are”, and more than one route is available to promote a feeling of agency.

“I see pride in the residents, especially when visitors are brought.”

In design meetings, the idea of “authority” was brought up by young people who have experienced homelessness. Kyle Mead explains that the building is tightly controlled, but there is no reception desk. The staff are milling around, like they were in a cafe. When a youth has experienced trauma, they may be hesitant to approach authority. They are not met with a large formal counter when they enter.

Leeann Milovich is the programme manager and she can see the difference in the young people who come to Laurel House. She can also see the difference when they move into their apartment. She says, “I notice the emotion when you tell someone ‘this is home’ for the first time.”

Nobody is saying that a beautiful design or architecture can solve trauma. However, Milivich believes that having a beautiful home can increase their self-worth. “I see a sense of pride, especially when people bring visitors, like, ‘wow, this is where you live?’ Yes, this is my home.”

Main Image: Matthew Staver

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