Imagine you’re sitting in a waiting room. It’s hot, and your knees are tight to those of the people sitting across from you. You can feel the cramped space closing in. It’s uncomfortable, so you look to the walls: They’re empty and painted a drab beige, with the exception of an old motivational poster. There are documents piled on the front desk and back issues of magazines scattered across the coffee table. The trash bin overflows, and the air is stale. If you weren’t already agitated, the feeling sets in when the receptionist calls your name. It’s time for your appointment.
Who hasn’t experienced spaces like this? They can cause discomfort for anyone, especially those who have experienced trauma. According to studies from the Center for Disease Control, 61 percent of adults in the U.S. have undergone at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE), a key indicator for future trauma. ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance-use problems in adolescence and adulthood. They can also negatively impact education, job opportunities, and earning potential. When our environment feels unwelcoming, restrictive, and disorganized, past and present trauma can quickly rise to the surface.
Trauma-informed design is an emerging field within architecture that relies on research about the effects of our environments on our attitudes, moods, and behaviors. Our spaces have been proven to trigger deep psychological responses; spatial layout, lighting, artwork, shapes, colors, and more can drastically influence how we feel about our safety and self-worth, for better or worse. Accordingly, architects who practice trauma-informed design seek to create designs that broadly foster support for trauma-experienced individuals.
Let’s revisit the previous example with some adjustments. Rather than mostly barren walls, the waiting room now features inviting signage with useful information about the space or soothing artwork that creates visual interest. A study on the effect of positive distractions in pediatric environments found that realistic artwork depicting nature could effectively reduce stress and anxiety in patients.
Instead of being disorganized and cluttered, the space is clean, structured, and you can easily find your way around; this makes individuals feel secure and validated, not doubtful of the setting’s legitimacy. When there are few barriers and we can easily see the breadth of space in front of us, we feel secure and in control of our surroundings. Spatial planning can eliminate visual complexity and the stress it causes.
These design choices might seem intuitive, yet they are often overlooked. In some cases, the difference is as simple as providing furniture with high backs so people can feel protected or letting in natural light to reduce feelings of enclosure and provide a connection to nature. It’s not hard for designers to be mindful of the impact that designed spaces have on those who inhabit them—in fact, it is likely a requirement of good design.
For some organizations, trauma-informed design isn’t just a guideline; it’s a necessity. For Spacesmith’s reimagining of SCO’s Genovese Family Life Center, we wanted to create a space that could facilitate the agency’s services for children, families, and adults navigating the difficult process of healing. It wasn’t enough to just promote recovery for those experiencing trauma and separation; we needed to prevent re-traumatization.
In a new and strategic part of our traditional design process, we conducted thorough research on trauma-informed and biophilic design through interviews, observation, and reviewing current literature. This allowed our team to better explore the physiological impacts that interior environments have on those within them.
Our design for this center included a welcoming waiting area with soft upholstered furnishings to create a living-room feel and put guests at ease; medical exam rooms with bright, leaf-patterned wallpaper to calmly preoccupy patients; and mental health counseling rooms with dimmable light fixtures to allow families to have control over their environment. We also implemented two layers of security: one behind secure glass and another behind a curved desk in the open area to help SCO’s patients to feel assured of their protection in the friendliest way possible.
Studies have shown that bright, saturated colors are linked to higher arousal, so we specified cool pastel hues of blue and green in areas where we wanted to encourage calm mental and physical states. Research has also proven that curved shapes evoke pleasure informing our design of the walls, doors, ceiling coves, and furnishings.
The work also drew upon the spatial configuration of prospect and refuge: Humans tend to seek out environments that promise benefits, or prospects, while still offering a sense of security, or refuge. In SCO’s family visiting rooms and workspaces, openings and stimulating views that increase guests’ views are offset by spatial dividers which promise respite.
In this project, we created an inviting, comforting space that diverged from the typical medical facility. Instead, the space evokes a sense of residential calm in patients and assists in alleviating stress and anxiety.
The values of trauma-informed design are helpful in other contexts. Arup, for example, noticed that planners rebuilding disaster-stricken communities often lack mental-health training and trauma awareness. Without the proper resources, professionals were rebuilding homes that were more vulnerable after disaster than before. In response, Arup, with the University of Washington, Seattle and the University of California, Los Angeles, created 14 trauma-informed recommendations as guidelines for post-disaster recovery planning; they include understanding community history, listening to community voices, and providing support and counseling.
The tenets of trauma-informed design are even beginning to be adopted in education spaces, like Walnut Grove Elementary School in Vancouver, Washington, designed by Bassetti Architects. The school has colorful walls featuring inspiring messages and biophilic designs, breakout spaces for groups and one-on-one learning, and an expansive pedestrian path that runs through the building. Beyond providing students with a sense of safety, these features greatly increase their capacity for learning. When our spaces elicit feelings of security and self-worth, it benefits everyone.
Although many instances of trauma-informed design cater to those who have faced extreme cases of trauma and hardship, the field’s basic principles remain relevant for all environments. Architecture should universally make us feel safer, valued, and more connected to others.
As architects and designers, we create better projects when we work with a deep sense of responsibility. When we empathize with the lived experiences of people who use the spaces we design, our work can help fulfill myriad human needs, even if it’s as simple as counteracting the stress we face every day.
Ámbar Margarida, IIDA, WELL AP, LEED Green Associate, is a principal at Spacesmith. She has a bachelor of fine arts in interior design from the School of Visual Arts and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in environmental social justice and environmental psychology at The City University of New York. She currently teaches critical thinking at the ID: Built Environments program at SVA.