Empathy In Architecture: COTS Embraces 'Trauma-Informed Design' In Shelter Renovation

Apr 18, 2018

Organizations who serve the homeless are working to be more thoughtful in the design of their spaces.

The Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS) is a Burlington organization that's been making some changes to their program spaces.

Jonathan Farrell, the facilities director at COTS, says when they moved their headquarters about a year ago, they moved their day station to the new location and adjusted the set up.

Jonathan Farrell is the facilities manager for COTS. He says renovations incorporating trauma-informed design at their overnight shelter are nearly finished.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR

The day station is a daytime shelter; it's a place for people to get a meal, use a computer, take a shower – there are even haircuts available once a month.

On a recent day, there are about a dozen people sitting at round tables and at a row of computers.

“But if you take a look you can see bright sunlight, tall ceilings, quiet space, calming colors that helped people be at ease when they're in this space,” Farrell says.

COTS already practices 'trauma-informed care' says Farrell, and now they're applying similar principles to how a room is set up. It's called 'trauma-informed design.'

“The basic concept is realizing that the physical environment has an effect on us, on our attitudes, our moods behaviors and it's responding by designing and maintaining healing environments for those who have experienced trauma,” Farrell says.

Farrell says in the work COTS does, they interact with people who have been in very tough situations.

“We want to create a space that gives them a place to catch their breath, be relaxed and refocus on their next challenge,” he says.

Jill Pable, a professor of architecture at Florida State University, is studying this concept.

“I’m fascinated that there may be very simple things we can do in architecture to make people feel more respected,” Pable says.

Pable also helps run a non-profit called Design Resources for the Homeless, which offers free information on how design can be used to help organizations like COTS.

"I'm fascinated that there may be very simple things we can do in architecture to make people feel more respected." — Jill Pable, professor of architecture at Florida State University

Pable says that small changes can make people feel empowered — even a simple thing, like how furniture is arranged.

“For example, when a person has experienced domestic violence or been assaulted, they are very concerned about people coming up to them from behind because they feel very vulnerable,” she says. “So a reaction to this architects and designers might think about is to create furniture arrangements that offer people protected backs, which means they're back is not facing the door.”

Pable says research on how to best design homeless shelters in just getting underway.

“We know a lot about how to build hospitals and schools and prisons, but surprisingly very little about behavioral health sorts of facilities,” she says. “That's just starting to heat up in the last four to six years. So I really see this idea of "trauma-informed design" as really being the next frontier of where we need to go.”

In Burlington, Farrell says COTS is now incorporating 'trauma-informed design' into recent renovations at their overnight shelter as well.

“So here, it is a work in progress taking this space that's fairly small and serves a lot of people,” he says. “We've opened up all the window space again. So we'll have new light-filtering shades installed shortly that will allow a lot of daylight into the room and also back into the men's dorm back there.”

The changes at the shelter aren't necessarily huge — things like picking specific colors for the walls, making more space to walk between bunk bunks and adjusting lighting — but they are intentional.

“Trying to incorporate all of those disparate elements, you know, thoughtfully,” Farrell says.

He says the shelter has remained open during the renovations which are nearly finished and so far, Farrell says, the people staying there like the changes.