Can the Design of Your Home Aid Recovery from Past Trauma? Research says ‘Yes’
As interior designers, we operate from an awareness that because we create the built spaces that our clients inhabit, we exercise tremendous influence on their lived experiences and the ability to make a tangible difference in our clients’ mental, physical, and emotional health. (1)
Extrapolating outward to the types of trauma the study excluded, as well the adverse experiences that occur in adulthood, the implications of this study are significant. The assumption that traumatic experiences among adults are widespread (if not universal) is a fair one. Particularly in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the mental and emotional fallout of which we are only beginning to understand and measure, addressing the effects of trauma has taken on a new urgency.
Much of the discussion around trauma-informed design has focused, understandably, on public and institutional contexts often directly connected with health and social services. (3) As understanding around the way that physical spaces affect our mental, emotional, and physical health have expanded, so too has demand for spaces designed with health and healing in mind. Where once function and safety were the primary concern in, for example, mental health facilities, designers are now looking at how to make these spaces soothing and restorative.
Knowing what we know about how widespread the experience of trauma is, it is reasonable to expand our thinking beyond institutional spaces and apply the principles of trauma informed practice to the design of homes and other private settings, as well as to the way we interact with clients. Our goal is to create spaces that manage the effects of trauma by reducing sudden sensory arousal, while also being actively healing and restorative.
This process begins with fostering a safe and inclusive environment for our clients in our work with them. While we may operate from an assumption that most adults are carrying some form of trauma with them, we don’t know what a client’s background or needs may be unless they tell us, so our aim is to approach with sensitivity and allow them the space to ask for what they need. This requires a certain amount of vulnerability and humility on our parts as well; an openness to holding ourselves accountable as well as to being held accountable by others and a willingness to ask our clients for clarification and make sure we are really hearing them and meeting their needs.
For us, creating an inclusive practice necessarily starts with mindfulness about language and using care around how we communicate. (4) There are many components to this, but all of them start with the understanding that there is no default listener, and that our foremost intention is to include and not to other. Recognizing common phrases that may carry racist or ableist subtext or histories and finding alternatives is one component of this, as is avoiding language that presumes the ethnicity, gender identity, or experiences of the listener. These are values that we work toward not only in our client interactions, but internally and with our vendors as well. By holding ourselves accountable even out of sight of clients, we are making inclusivity a core principle rather than an outward gesture.
When it comes to designing the spaces themselves, our chief goal in taking a trauma-informed approach is building in ways to reduce or control sensory overstimulation. Sensory triggers can be hugely disturbing for neurodivergent people (particularly those on the autism spectrum), as well as people with chronic migraines, Post Traumatic Stress, Alzheimer’s, and other chemical or sensory sensitivities. (5) Spaces designed to be inclusive of neurodivergence and disability will by definition be spaces that feel safer and more protective for everyone along various spectrums of need — even neurotypical people can experience stress from sensory overstimulation that impacts their health and emotional resilience. (6) Among the ways we can address this in the design of a space is by creating varied paths to shelter from intrusive sounds, odors, and light and within a space and by finding ways to empower our clients to limit and customize their exposure to these stimuli. (7) One way to do this is to create smaller retreats within spaces, balancing the calming quality of openness with the comforting quality of being enveloped. Another is by prioritizing the use of colors, textures, and other sensory elements that the client finds comforting. Some of these may overlap with received wisdom about what is calming, and some may be specific to the client’s own taste and sense of comfort.
This ties in with our next goal, which is about not only creating spaces that allow the management of sensory stimuli, but that are actively restorative in a more positive sense. This is where customizing to the client’s specific needs and tastes is particularly important. For example, we place a high value on including art in the spaces we design — we consider it integral, rather than an afterthought and take great care not only in the selection of art for a space but in how and where it is displayed. That said, while there are general notions of what makes a piece of art soothing for a viewer, from color to subject matter, ultimately the most important factor is what the client loves. Clients will always derive the greatest benefit from seeing art that evokes a sense of calm or happiness in themselves, but what that means in a material sense will vary widely from person to person. While, as designers, we can offer our guidance and expertise in the selection of art for the home, the ability to listen to our clients and help select pieces that are truly personalized to their wants and needs is paramount.
Another way we create restorative spaces is by creating access to nature and integrating nature into the spaces themselves. The biophilic design movement has emerged around the idea that making nature a part of a space has tremendous benefits for emotional, mental, and physical health. (8) There are many ways to approach this that will vary according to the project and the needs and wants of the client. Views of nature, particularly ones that are designed to provide a sense of continuity with the indoors and outdoors, can be one way to achieve this. Perhaps the most straightforward way to bring nature into the home is via abundant plant life, where appropriate to the client and their lifestyle. Another is to use natural materials to integrate nature into the home on a tactile level. Sourcing and sustainability become an important factor here, as the benefits of this connection with nature are undermined if the materials are produced and sourced in a way that is ecologically harmful. On a more figurative level, nature can be incorporated into an indoor space through pieces and imagery that evoke the natural world through their shape, texture, and color.
Looking at our immediate moment in history, we are experiencing greater challenges than ever in making homes restorative spaces, alongside a greater need for our homes to be restorative spaces. For many of us right now, our homes have become workplaces, schools, and places for recreation. How can we create homes that are healing and calming when we are asking more from our homes than ever? Mental and emotional restoration requires elements of retreat and privacy that are much harder to achieve when our spaces become multifunctional, so we have to get creative in our approach. One thing we can do is create boundaries in the home without putting up walls: for example, using a screen to designate part of an open area as a work space, where the stressors of the day can remain out of sight when it’s time to relax. Another tactic is to put extra care and attention into places in the home that do offer privacy, letting them act as retreats from the rest of the living space. Bathrooms, for example, are private by design and can be used this way even in homes where privacy is harder to come by. Thinking beyond a room’s most basic function in this way can open up these kinds of opportunities to create calming, restorative environments even in less traditional spaces.
As designers, we have a tremendous opportunity to ameliorate our clients’ trauma by creating healing spaces for them and by making the process of creating those spaces a warm and inclusive one. We may never know or see our clients’ struggles, but we can approach our work for them with empathy and compassion, as well as with the practical knowledge of how to address their needs. As gratifying as it is to have our clients appreciate our work, it is even more gratifying to know that we can make a material difference in their health and happiness.
Sarah Barnard is a WELL and LEED accredited designer and creator of environments that support mental, physical and emotional wellbeing. She creates highly personalized, restorative spaces that are deeply connected to art and the preservation of the environment. An advocate for consciousness, inclusivity, and compassion in the creative process, Sarah’s work has been recognized by Architectural Digest, Elle Décor, Real Simple, HGTV and many other publications. In 2017 Sarah was recognized as a “Ones to Watch” Scholar by the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID).