Delores at Arroyo Village in Denver combines a 60-bed homeless shelter, 35 one-bedroom units of supportive housing, and 95 workforce apartments. (Shopworks Architecture)

Design elements can create more hospitable places for people with heightened sensitivity.

The open-air spaces, soft colors, and diffused natural light at First Place Apartments in Phoenix and the Delores Project in Denver could transfer to almost any contemporary residential space. Their welcoming tones demonstrate a mass appeal. More important, though, those design elements also offer a lifeline to traumatized individuals trying to gain a foothold on life.

In much the same way that universal design is intended to seamlessly accommodate diverse physical needs, the emerging field of trauma-informed design strives to create attractive havens for individuals who might otherwise be institutionalized or left behind. The concept touches on everything from color and furniture placement to finishes on artwork.

“Trauma-informed design is actually about how everything in the world should be designed,” said Laura Rossbert, chief operating officer of Shopworks Architecture in Denver. She spoke about the expanding view of design during the ULI Housing Opportunity 2020 conference in Miami in February.

Rossbert and others highlighted several projects that are gaining recognition for both their thoughtful approach and their ability to draw public support. In addition, academics and other advocates give voice to the idea that well-designed space can reduce the effects of certain disorders.

Research Driven

The main reason why trauma-informed design is gaining attention now centers on new research and improved diagnostics that have expanded the universe of people who could benefit from innovative housing solutions. Research described in a 2017 paper by J. Davis Harte and Dak Kopec has found, for instance, that about one in four minors in the United States has neurological disorders resulting from substantive trauma.

“I honestly believe we’re at the beginning edge of design connecting to a full phenomenon,” said Jill Pable, a professor of interior architecture and design at Florida State University.

Trauma, she said, is just starting to be recognized as a health factor. Poverty, isolation, and abuse can all traumatize people over time, leading to depression and emotional outbursts. Federal mental health administrators, Pable said, now recognize that changing the built environment helps residents function and recover.

“The idea of design as a prescription makes sense here, as those who live in this housing have the most to arguably gain from the healing effects that this architecture provides,” said Pable, former national president of the Interior Design Educators Council.

In downtown Los Angeles, New Genesis Apartments reflect the concept even from the outside. Designed by Killefer Flammang Architects and Collaborative House, the permanent, support housing for low-income residents and people who were recently homeless has 98 studio apartments and eight one-bedroom units.

The neutral elevation of the seven-story apartment building blends with surrounding structures but also features saturated accents so that it does not shrink from the streetscape, as affordable housing sometimes can, notes a ULI case study on the project. These residents need a home that claims its space confidently, said the director of the Skid Row Housing Trust.

An open-air central atrium lets light flood into the heart of the project. Architect Wade Killefer said he prioritized natural light as “rule number one” to ease the effects of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The idea is to do more than house people. The overall goal of that project and others, Pable said, is to provide a foundation of stability that builds residents’ immunity to emotional triggers so that they do not slide back into former ways of thinking and acting.

Above and below: Denver’s Laradon School for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities uses a blend of natural materials and textures. (Shopworks Architecture)

Key Elements

The intention is simple: create dignified, attractive spaces that promote community and health. Shopworks Architecture’s Rossbert described some signature elements of trauma-informed design:

Devise rooms to minimize emotional triggers, which residents can experience after brushing up against someone or feeling blindsided by a surprise. Adding art and a sense of nature helps build dignity while also diffusing tensions. Blackout blinds or curtains for sleeping areas also help residents heal.

Incorporate durable finishes that do not sacrifice elegance. At Denver’s Laradon School for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, a blend of natural materials adds textures that would complement any classroom. But the variegated plywood panels on the bottom half of walls, articulated sections of red-brick walls, and polished concrete floors also can withstand years of hard use.

Empower residents by giving them choices, even if it is just the color of a chair or the freedom to set a dimmer light switch. Seeking input from prospective residents—and incorporating their suggestions—gives them a sense of ownership.

Plan public gathering spaces near staff areas to foster relationships over time. In contrast, traditional offices put up walls that serve as barriers between staff and residents. At the Delores Project shelter and Delores Apartments in Denver, Rossbert said that prime space overlooking the mountains usually sits empty while residents congregate instead in open areas that are close to staff members.

Above and below: First Place Apartments in Phoenix offers 55 units for neurologically impaired residents and others. A culinary teaching kitchen allows residents to socialize, acquire skills, and boost their independence. (Scott Sandler)

Financial Considerations

The finishes and features at the heart of trauma-informed design are generally considered affordable, but assembling the land, embedding ample windows, purchasing art, and carving out lush community spaces can render such projects too costly.

In Phoenix, a 55-unit apartment project for neurologically impaired residents and others is known for managing costs without sacrificing residents’ experiences. The idea behind First Place Apartments formed more than two decades ago when the mother of an autistic man sought a comfortable place for him and others with similar challenges. Denise Resnik launched a nonprofit organization and turned to experts for help.

In 2004, ULI Arizona supported her mission by organizing a panel that explored housing opportunities for people on the autism spectrum. That effort led to the 2009 Opening Doors report by ULI Arizona, the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center, and Arizona State University. Among other things, it pointed to a gap in residential support. Five years later, Resnik’s nonprofit organization acquired a 1.5-acre (0.6 ha) site near transit and employment opportunities in Phoenix.

Even though the location seemed optimal, costs mounted in a way that could have put Resnik’s long-held vision in jeopardy.

“We were getting bids back and we were way over budget and our board said we must have economic sustainability,” Resnik, founder of nonprofit entities including FirstPlaceAZ, told the ULI audience in Miami.

Her group got the big break it needed when it won neighborhood support for zoning changes to eliminate the project’s $2 million underground parking. Officials realized that prospective residents would more likely take transit than drive, so regular parking ratios did not really apply.

On the capital side, First Place’s location near employment and public transportation helped the nonprofit organization secure a federal New Markets Tax Credit, which is aimed at jobs and economic development. Corporate and philanthropic donors contributed as well. Financing relied on rental rates that reflect a fully staffed senior community.

Completed in 2018 at a cost of $15.4 million, First Place is a modern, four-story residential mid-rise with multistory windows set against a neutral palette and yellow accent walls. One-bedroom units run $3,900 per month. Rent covers trained support staff, appliances, nontoxic finishes, activities, and amenities such as a fitness center. Rather than congregate dining, First Place offers a culinary teaching kitchen where residents can acquire skills. Cable and utility bills are part of the package.

Technologically, sensors turn off stoves when no motion is detected nearby.

And Amazon Alexa devices help ease residents’ feeling of isolation. Resnik said her son uses his to listen to the Beatles and Elton John, get the weather forecast so he can lay out his work clothes for the next day, and build a grocery list.

For now, First Place occupancy stands at about three-quarters. Resnik told conference attendees that families can take time to make the move-in decision. But the promise of a long-term solution appeals particularly to aging parents whose adult children have development and intellectual challenges. One tenant, she said, just leased an apartment following three years of conversations about moving there.

Looking ahead, Resnik said that her group is researching other sources of government assistance. She noted that demand for these types of accommodations will only grow, much as the senior-living industry has during the last half-century.

First Place Apartments was formed more than two decades ago when the mother of an autistic man sought a place where he would be comfortable. Thousands of Legos are available in the lounge, encouraging creativity, concentration, collaboration, and social interaction. (Scott Sandler)

Government Partnerships

At the last turn of the century, one in every 150 children in the United States was diagnosed with some form of autism. Now, that rate is about three times as high, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The phrase “on the spectrum” has become part of society’s lexicon and people are now more likely to have friends, relatives, coworkers, and neighbors dealing in some way with intellectual disorders. Similarly, the outfall from the foreclosure crisis a decade ago has destigmatized the plight of housing instability. Along with the greater public acceptance comes the opportunity for more public support.

One South Florida nonprofit organization succeeded in winning public backing so that it could build affordable apartments for residents with intellectual and developmental disorders. In September, Miami-based Casa Familia Inc. plans to break ground on its namesake residential project with 38 one-bedroom and 12 two-bedroom apartments laid out in two L-shaped buildings of three stories with a pool and one-story community center in the middle.

Federal tax credits totaling $15 million and a $4 million state grant will offset most of the costs, which are estimated at less than $25 million with land. Rents are slated at far below going market rates. One-bedrooms are expected to rent at $864 per month, not including utilities. Apartments with two bedrooms, which have shared common space, are expected to lease at $667 per bedroom, including utilities.

Along with the University of Miami Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, both Atlantic Pacific Companies and United Community Options helped shape the project. The collective of partners seeks opportunities for creating calmness with sound-absorbing surfaces while veering away from products such as fluorescent lights, which constantly hum.

Longtime Casa Familia supporter Deborah Lawrence said that everyone at the table respected a key design element—space. Future residents of Casa Familia will benefit greatly from having a sense of personal space and room to decompress, she added.

“We fought for 783 square feet [73 sq m] in the one-bedrooms—twice the space you will find in a regular one-bedroom,” said Lawrence, Casa Familia’s senior consultant for housing for people with intellectual and developmental disorders (IDD).

The tradeoff for minimal kitchens was additional room for everything from storage to gatherings. Geared to build a sense of community, plans call for a movie theater, a fitness center, a pool, a spa, walking paths, and rooms for arts and crafts and games.

Everyday Applications

Sitting at his desk in a nonprofit housing group in Burlington, Vermont, facilities director Jonathan Farrell said he sees opportunities for trauma-informed design not just in plans for ambitious new developments, but also in daily decisions about furniture placement, window treatments, and houseplants.

In planning a new day station for the homeless, he found an online collection of evidence-based design resources. After studying Design Resources for Homelessness, a resource guide published by Pable, Farrell said he began to see applications for trauma-informed design throughout the many properties operated by his group, the Committee on Temporary Shelter.

“A lot of these buildings have been in service for 30-plus years. There’ve been remodels, add-ons, and paint jobs by the staff. When you step back, it’s a little ad hoc,” Farrell said.

With Farrell armed with the research, the staff became enlightened by the research concepts and their conversations about temporary, transitional, and permanent housing became much richer. “If I said, ‘We can’t have a dark-brown dining room,’ well, that doesn’t work,” he said. “It can be interpreted as: ‘Well, Jonathan doesn’t like that color.’ Color is so subjective.”

Farrell’s group now draws on the resource guide and holds trauma-informed design as an agency-wide goal for all its properties. “We’re not going to renovate all at once,” he said. “But whether it’s a room flip, renovation, layout, aesthetics, sight lines, plants, or where a person sits—is it a subordinate power position at a desk?—we think about all those things now.”

MARY SHANKLIN is a writer based in Orlando.