Interior environments that support users’ resilience are an emerging topic among designers. A person with resilience is able to recover from problems quickly. We all have problems, but people who have experienced past traumas such as physical abuse, mental abuse, or homelessness need to preserve and rebuild their resilience in order to regain a normal life.
Helplessness is a complicating factor that adds complexity to stressful situations like finding a job and a place to live. It is a condition that causes one to feel that they do not control their destiny, and there is nothing he or she can do to change their current condition. This state of despair is difficult to overcome. For people experiencing homelessness, having the ability to withstand life’s problems can increase their capacity to find a permanent place to live and to overcome flashbacks that paralyze their actions and progress.
Physical environment can exacerbate learned helplessness if the built environment tightly controls the people living within it, like overcrowding the space or not giving residents the ability to vary the lighting or have privacy. Researchers also tell us that people experiencing distress are susceptible to re-traumatization brought on by environmental triggers.
In researching environments for people experiencing homelessness over the last eight years, I have come to see that even small interior elements that residents encounter in a homeless shelter can serve as triggers or subtle reminders of their lack of a home and the stress being exerted on their families. Black-painted bunk beds can remind residents of jail. Clutter in a bedroom without storage options reminds residents of their inability to organize their lives and “get it together.” Numbers identifying rooms and beds on interior signage in a homeless shelter are a necessary wayfinding measure, but can also cause people to feel like they are subsumed in a large and anonymous system over which they have little control. One mother my research partner and I interviewed objected to the numerals on her shelter bedroom door, observing that “we’re a family, not a number.” It had, in effect, become a negative trigger and a reminder of their situation. Such events, small as they are, can initiative a relapse in an individual’s progress toward a better outlook on life and eventual recovery.
On a positive note, the design of the physical environment also has the potential to support a resilient state of mind and stave off learned helplessness. In a moment when a family needs to come together in order to recover from homelessness, it seems logical to provide cues of worth, respect, and dignity.
Start with how residents are identified. Our research team undertook a small study that involved renovating a four-person bedroom in a homeless shelter. Among the improvements, we installed a changeable hallway sign by the bedroom door that permitted the family to display a message of their choice to their neighbors. When we checked in with the family who agreed to live in the renovated bedroom over the nine-month course of the study, we found they repeatedly created and placed signs in the holder, announcing their names, or wishing their neighbors a good holiday. The sign became their outward identifier, giving them the opportunity to claim their personhood and their space, even in the midst of recovering from the lack of “thereness” in homelessness. Through interviews with the family, we found that the sign was an opportunity for teaching the family’s children about relating to others that lived along the hallway. The mother was enthusiastic about the role that the room’s renovations had in making her family feel more settled and calm.
Can a sign support resiliency and trauma recovery? Our study suggests that it probably can if the sign acts as a tool of self-expression, allowing a person in crisis to stake a claim as a member of humanity once again. The study’s conclusions provided evidence that there is potential power in small built environment features providing a significant positive meaning and comfort to people.
Understanding the role of environmental cues can likely help a designer create spaces that build resiliency. This idea, and a wealth of other evidence-supported ideas for designing environments that encourage healing, are available at Design Resources for Homelessness, a new online curated collection of reports, case studies, and summarized research. Design Resources for Homelessness was made possible in part by the Irene Winifred Eno grant from the American Society of Interior Designers Foundation. Contact Jill Pable, project lead, at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn how you might help support this important nonprofit effort.
About the Author
Jill Pable is a professor in the Interior Architecture and Design Department at Florida State University and a fellow and past national president of the Interior Design Educators Council. She holds B.S. and M.F.A. degrees in interior design and a Ph.D. degree in instructional technology with specialization in architecture. Her research focuses on the design of environments for the disadvantaged and is the originator of Design Resources for Homelessness, a research-informed online resource for architectural designers and service organizations creating facilities for homeless. She believes that design can make life more interesting, fulfilling, and humane.
Figure 1. Changeable sign installed outside a transitional shelter family bedroom, customized by the family for hallway neighbors.
Figure 2. Concept for a bed number sign in an emergency shelter. Residents can additionally write their name using the provided chalk to claim the space and help retain their dignity.