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The Importance and Potential of Trauma-Informed Design: In Conversation With Laura Rossbert

May 25, 2022 by Clayton Truscott

Laura Rossbert, Chief Operating Officer and Supportive Housing Specialist at Shopworks Architecture
“Have you ever walked into a space and immediately felt truly joyful? Or has it made you feel immediately unsafe?”

The answer to this question is almost never clear or easy to pinpoint. You could trace it to countless variables that make the experience of one person in a particular space entirely unique. This is the nucleus for our recent conversation with Laura Rossbert, Chief Operating Officer and Supportive Housing Specialist at Shopworks Architecture, a firm that is helping to define, develop, and broaden the reach of trauma-informed design (TID).

In recent years, conversations about trauma and mental health have become more mainstreamed and normalized. The pandemic, racial justice, political tensions, climate change, and toxic corporate cultures have all been roiled by events that have unearthed a broad and critical need to do more to support the mental health of people. TID is an emerging field that draws heavily from trauma-informed care, biophilic design, and other adjacent practices that consider the whole person (their experiences past and present) when designing space.

The team at LSW has been fortunate to partner with Shopworks on a project currently in development and has benefitted greatly from their open, generous approach to design. To get a better sense of TIC’s origin, purpose, and potential, we connected with Laura and asked a series of pointed questions.

For anyone new to the concept, can you briefly unpack what trauma-informed design is?

Trauma-informed design (TID) rests on the foundation that the built environment impacts us all. To be specific about the practice of TID, it is about understanding how trauma affects individuals (their bodies and their brains) and how that trauma impacts our relationship with the built environment. From there, it is designing with trauma in mind to create buildings and spaces that offer shelter and opportunities for people to heal and thrive.

Above and in the main image: "Arroyo House (by Shopworks) is the first ever project of its kind in Colorado to encompass a continuum of care for people experiencing housing instability that includes everything from a homeless shelter to workforce housing."

How is Shopworks working to help define trauma-informed design as a practice and contribute to a collective understanding of it?

It’s a collective effort. We have a multi-disciplinary research team that includes members from the Center for Housing and Homelessness Research at the University of Denver and Group14 Engineering. We also work with dozens of non-profits to inform and distribute our findings including organizations like Preservation of Affordable Housing and Enterprise Community Partners.

This work started with our design team understanding trauma-informed care (TIC), which lays the foundation for TID. TIC is an evidenced-based best practice in service provision; examples of this approach can be found in schools, homeless shelters and affordable housing. For the programs that are offered in these spaces, they must be focused on the following six principles that the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has identified:

  • Safety
  • Trustworthiness and Transparency
  • Peer Support
  • Collaboration and Mutuality
  • Empowerment, Voice and Choice
  • Cultural, Historical and Gender Issues

We took this as a basis for our research, which started off with three different supportive

housing developments in Colorado. In those interviews, we asked staff and residents what aspects of the building were helping them heal and thrive, and what was getting in the way of that healing. Since our initial research in 2019, we have interviewed over 675 people nationwide about the built design and continue to refine our research and findings to share with others.

Another important filter for our work is biophilia, the study of how nature helps us heal. A paper on that as it relates to affordable housing written by Rachelle Macur, a member of our team, can be found here.

Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris’ TEDtalk about trauma and its impact on our bodies provides a comprehensive overview that is well worth listening to.

There’s an amazing mix of disciplines that make-up the team at Shopworks. Can you talk through the reasons behind the cross-functional team members and why that makes Shopworks effective?

I believe what makes our work so strong and impactful is the diversity of disciplines, experiences and expertise on our research team. We are a group that includes social workers, researchers, a non-profit housing developer, architects and a sustainability consultant.

We came together through the small world that is affordable housing in 2019. The traction and interest our work has generated has been overwhelming and a great motivator. We have received funding from a variety of foundations and have benefitted from deep partnerships across the field to ensure our research can have a direct impact on projects nation-wide (40 projects impacted thus far and counting).

When we created our first research paper “Designing for Healing, Dignity and Joy” with our TID Framework (published in 2020), my hope was that a few hundred people would express interest in it. The response was absolutely astounding; so far, we’ve now trained close to two thousand non-profits, developers, architects, funders and others in affordable housing on trauma-informed design. Through those conversations, we realized there were two more needs in the community to ensure our research could best assist those designing buildings and so we put together additional research:

Implementing a Four-Phased Trauma-Informed Design Process: Here is an overview of how we implement TID in our design process. This is not a checklist, but more about how the process should be impacted when we seek to design with an understanding of trauma as a core value. This overview includes case studies on specific developments to show how the process was implemented on specific developments, as well as an accompanying step-by-step manual. Click here to view our manual that accompanies this document.

Architectural Principles in the Service of Trauma-Informed Design: This pamphlet focuses on ways to design a building to help regulate the body and support therapeutic approaches. Since trauma lives and works through the body and the body reacts to physical space before we cognitively process it, the built environment is integral to how one experiences trauma. This document presents a brief primer on the body-space-trauma relationship, organizing principles for trauma-informed architecture, some examples of built work and narratives that inform what amenities residents and staff may need.

We ensure these publications are accessible to all who want them - they, alongside a helpful webinar with our entire research team is available at shopworksarc.com/TID. We welcome you to explore and share these freely and then offer your feedback and thoughts on them!

Alongside ensuring that our research meets the needs of the community, we also aim to learn from every interview to iterate on our process and questions. While we revisit our framework consistently, we do find that the values and ideals of our initial framework remain true to what we are hearing.

Can you talk us through the 6 principals of trauma-informed design?

Through research and with Dr. Jill Pable at Design Resources for Homelessness, we’ve identified six core values of a trauma-informed approach to design. These come from our years of work designing affordable housing, as well as the overarching themes that kept coming to the surface in our TID research. Anyone developing housing should consider these core values and prioritize them in their work, starting off by asking how their decisions in the design and construction of housing bring these values to life.

  • Dignity, Hope and Self-Esteem
  • Empowerment and Personal Control
  • Safety, Security and Privacy
  • Peace of Mind
  • Community and Connection
  • Joy, Beauty and Meaning

Above: Laurel House is a trauma-informed supportive housing apartment (designed by Shopworks) for youth who have experienced homelessness."

When designing housing, we often focus on the bottom layers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, looking at providing shelter and safety for individuals; we should be focusing on what helps individuals thrive. To reach this, we encourage housing teams to think through three key questions and concepts that need to be asked of every design decision.

First, is this helping to create choice for the resident? Is this allowing all residents to have agency in their environment, do they have different areas to explore depending on what feels healing to them in the moment?

Second, are we making decisions that lead to comfort for the residents? We need to pay attention when building affordable housing to the quality and variety of materials, sensory experiences of light, sound and smell and bringing in elements of nature and artwork that bring calm or spark joy.

Lastly, is this design element helping to build community? Building trusting relationships is one of the main ways that individuals heal from trauma. In affordable housing, amenity spaces must be close (even just through visual access) to staff, so they can build safe relationships in a comfortable way.

Throughout the design process, the housing team should seek to understand the cultural and environmental context of the building,and be in conversation with and take leadership from, those with lived experiences of homelessness and trauma.

Together, these core values, key concepts and contexts frame the intent of the trauma-informed design process and influence design decision-making across all building systems and features—from natural elements and access to nature, to safety and security, to circulation and wayfinding, to light and color, to flexibility and scale.

Trauma tends to be represented by the largest, most acute examples rather than a spectrum of experiences. How can we (society) start think about trauma-informed design as a design filter that supports everyday mental health in more common spaces, such as community buildings, gyms, stadiums, or homes?

A study by Kaiser Permanente and the CDC in the mid-90’s studied Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) scores. An ACE score is a measure from zero to ten of experiences in childhood focusing on abuse, neglect and family disjunction. They then connected the ACE scores to health outcomes. What they found is that 64% of Americans have an ACE score of at least one. So, when we are talking about trauma, we are talking about all of us – and how all spaces should be designed.

Have you ever walked into a space and immediately felt truly joyful? Or has it made you feel immediately unsafe? I have and I can’t always point out why. Space impacts all of our bodies and that is often due to past experiences or traumas that we might not know consciously, but we subconsciously respond to. For me, the goal is that all spaces, including how cities are organized, are eventually impacted by trauma-informed design because it helps ALL of us heal and thrive via the built environment.

Above: Another look at Laurel House from the interior

What have been some of the big lessons learned through your experience?

At the end of the day, my experience, as someone who has always been safely housed, is different than those who have not experienced safety when they sleep or who have experienced other types of trauma. As such, it is absolutely critical that the voices of those with lived experience inform the values and focus of our design process from day one of that process.

That’s why the first thing we do in Schematic Design is perform focus groups to interview potential staff and residents in a building. To hear their life experiences, ask them what safety and community means to them and come up with suggestions for the design team based on those themes. Safety, when designing an apartment for veterans, looks different than when designing an apartment focused on youth exiting homelessness. While there are themes that run across various communities, what a trauma-informed design building looks like depends on those who will spend their days and nights walking its halls. It is our job, as those designing these spaces, to make sure they will create feelings of dignity and joy!


*All project images have been used with the permission of Shopworks.