Trauma-Informed Design: 5 Ways to Build Calm into Shelters and Housing

Sitting space with windows
portrait of woman
Michelle Pribyl Housing Studio Lead

In recent years, trauma-informed design has become an increasingly talked-about topic in affordable housing. The term found its way into architectural discussions from another field, healthcare, where practitioners routinely care for individuals who have survived traumatic experiences.

Trauma-informed care seeks to address patient well-being without retriggering past traumas associated with situations such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, or displacement. In healthcare, this might mean seeking consent or validating a patient’s experience to build trust before proceeding with treatments.

Anyone who has ever experienced a stressful encounter or two knows that such situations bring out strong emotions. Faced with danger, uncertainty, or violence, our brains automatically pivot into “flight or fight” mode. We may feel trapped or alarmed. We instinctively back away or ball our fists or raise our voices.

Years later, a similar situation may cause us to remember the original stress—consciously or not—and slip into the same defensive position. Visual, aural, and other triggers in our environment may prompt us to react similarly to the original trauma.

Earth tones and hues found in nature, along with wood and other natural materials, can lend a sense of calm to a space.

Individuals without stable housing have often experienced significant trauma, so designers who specialize in shelters and supporting housing can support these individuals by creating spaces that won’t trigger responses and instead foster a sense of calm. While everyone reacts to and recovers from trauma in unique ways, there are some general principles that LHB architects use frequently in affordable housing, supportive housing, and shelter design to mitigate potential trauma responses.

Our approach emphasizes:

Trauma-informed design communicates not only a sense of physical safety but also emotional and psychological security. Well-lit spaces, secure entrances, and thoughtful landscaping are reassuring to individuals who have experienced instability.

Perhaps the most important outcome of trauma-informed design, however, is that it provides a sense of control and empowerment. You can avoid triggers and find the support you need without encountering triggers. Amid the serenity of a trauma-informed space, you may discover the support and resources you need to recover. Shedding the trauma that has slowed your previous progress, you can move forward on your healing journey. ∎

Michelle Pribyl is co-lead of LHB’s housing studio and a longtime designer of affordable housing, supportive housing, and shelter projects. Contact her at, or learn more about the housing team’s work on our housing market page.

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