How Trauma-Informed Design is Incorporated into Supportive Housing | Housing Finance Magazine

Arroyo Village is an award-winning development with a full range of housing, from a homeless shelter to affordable and permanent supportive housing. Before designing the ambitious Denver community, leaders of The Dolores Project invited Chad Holtzinger to a training on the model of care that the organization was implementing in the shelter.

“I came away from the training in awe of how little the design profession really knows or thinks about mental health,” recalls Holtzinger, president of Shopworks Architecture. She pushed him to learn about trauma-informed design, and now he has integrated the key concepts in Arroyo Village and other communities. The firm of him has also written several research papers on the subject.

The genesis of the approach stems from the trauma-informed care movement, which seeks to recognize the pervasive impact of trauma on people and integrate this understanding into pathways to ending a person’s homelessness crisis, as well as integrating knowledge about trauma in different practices.

Trauma-informed care principles have imparted ideas of empowerment, autonomy and collaboration in design considerations for the built environment, says Jill Pable, founder and project leader of Design Resources for Homelessness, a nonprofit organization that interprets research into practical strategies that designers can use to promote trauma-informed design to help people manage crisis effectively.

“All of those things add various creative ways that can be manifested in architectural spaces,” she says. “It can be small things like the lighting that is present in a bathroom. Does the lighting make someone feel empowered for their job interview that day, offering good skin color, or does it emphasize the bags under a person’s eyes? Does anyone have the ability to safely get to the bathroom at night in shared facilities with night lighting? Does anyone have the ability to safely store your belongings?”

Photography by Matthew Staver
A partnership between Rocky Mountain Communities and The Dolores Project, Arroyo Village features a 60-bed homeless shelter, 35 one-bedroom supportive housing units, and 95 affordable apartments. The entire property was designed by Shopworks Architecture using a trauma-informed design perspective, included the use of wood and natural materials, soft lighting and open sight lines.

Trauma-informed design is an especially important framework for developing supportive housing for people who have experienced homelessness or other trauma. However, the Shopworks Architecture team likes to underscore the reality that trauma is pervasive – the COVID-19 pandemic is one example – making trauma-informed design relevant to all of us.

“At the fundamental level, trauma-informed design means we’re honoring that part of people’s healing and recovery,” says Ariana Saunders, associate director of the CSH Training Center. “It is about living in spaces that feel safe and supportive for them. It’s a big part of why we do what we do. It is intentional because we know that when people feel safe and supported, they will stay housed and be more successful.”

Trauma-informed design is part of the curriculum for CSH’s Supportive Housing Institute, a training program for developers and service providers.

While it is important to recognize that everyone’s experiences are different and that there is no single template for incorporating trauma-informed design into a building, Affordable Housing Finance asked industry experts to share several best practices and key concepts that can serve as an introduction.

early communication

Listening to potential residents, as well as the people who will work in the building, is essential to understand their needs. “Getting feedback is a key element,” says Saunders.
Holtzinger also stresses the importance of giving people the opportunity to create their environment. She regularly encourages developers to spend time conducting interviews to gain a deeper understanding of people’s needs. practical,” she says.
Trauma-informed design doesn’t really add to the price of a project unless you’ve made false assumptions and need to make changes later in the process, he says.

Hierarchy of needs

In the early stages of a project, Holtzinger says he likes to think of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which starts with basic physiological needs like food, water and shelter on base. However, Maslow’s theory believes that there are four other levels of need: safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. With a trauma-informed design, the pendulum swings from basic shelter and harmlessness to a space that promotes healing, hope, and prosperity. It is imagining a place to live fully.
“As a guide for designers, it’s important because many of the decisions designers make can have a confounding effect on one’s ability to connect with others,” says Holtzinger.

design examples

Pable and other experts explain that trauma-informed design is not just a design change in a building. Instead, it’s a series of multiple changes and steps that make a place feel inviting and comfortable, often involving lighting, finishes, color palettes, and the sense of volume in a space. Intuitive signage can help someone navigate a new place.

For someone who has been homeless, the thought of entering a new building can be very intimidating, as homeless people can often be victims of physical assault or abuse. “One of the biggest decisions someone has to make is whether or not to go in and ask for services,” says Pable. “Some places are more welcoming than others.”

Glass doors or windows that allow a person to see inside and preview a space before entering can foster a sense of security in users, according to Pable.

At a reception desk, it can also help if a person can place your belongings on the counter to keep an eye on them, she adds.

Holtzinger and officials at The Dolores Project also recognized the importance of the entrance, whereby people entering the building are greeted by an immediate path out of the building. “There is a way out,” says Holtzinger. “There’s a visual line of sight and an exit, so it’s cozy in that way.” Guests are also met with a comfortable living room space with wooden times.

Wide hallways and clear sight lines can also help people feel safer and less claustrophobic.

Materials and Lighting
Materials and colors influence the way people feel in a room. Anything resembling a hospital or police station can be very triggering, which is why trauma-informed design strives to “deinstitutionalize” an environment. Amenity spaces, in particular, often incorporate natural materials like woods and textiles into the room. “Usually we look for more handcrafted materials,” says Holtzinger.
Rooms with good natural light can often help people feel more secure.

outdoor space
Access to exclusive outdoor spaces is often very important to residents. “We started talking about these areas as four different buckets: smoking, pets, kids, quiet,” says Jennifer Wilson, director of research and impact at Shopworks Architecture.

The development team may consider giving each cube its own space and considering their proximity and relationship to each other.

Smoking isn’t good for your health, but it’s a way to calm down and socialize for many people, says Holtzinger. Many people like to sit outside and smoke while talking to their neighbors.

Gardening is another way for residents to connect.

unit design

Shopworks Architecture and other firms have also extended trauma-informed design to individual units. One key is making residents feel safe in their units, so at The Dolores Apartments, a 35-unit supportive housing development in Arroyo Village, a cutout was created in the wall between the living room and the bedroom to provide visibility throughout the space. The large windows also offer views of the courtyard and the street.

Interviews with residents can also reveal whether dimmable light switches or blackout blinds are important amenities in their homes. “The key is choice, customization, ownership,” says Wilson.

Instilling a sense of ownership can help promote identity and self-esteem, agrees Pable. There are different ways a developer can do this. An example is including built-in shelves or blank photo frames on the walls, which can encourage people to share images important to them and convey their identity to others. Such tactics can promote a positive sense of territoriality, support self-esteem, and build relationships with others.

“There are a variety of ways to be creative and caring that aren’t necessarily expensive but are very meaningful to people in crisis,” says Pable.


It’s also often a good idea to conduct a review a year or so after a building opens to find out what worked and what areas need improvement. Interviews with residents and staff can provide insights into future projects and offer lessons for the affordable housing industry as a whole.

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