Design Eases the Transition to Safety for Survivors of Abuse

02/19/2020 By Robyn Whitwham

I have a confession. The original idea I had about a woman’s path from victim to survivor in cases of domestic abuse was all wrong. I thought that seeking emergency shelter meant looking for just that—an immediate, short-term, safe place to go that provides basic resources.

In reality, a shelter needs to be much more than a roof over one’s head. As designers, we know that the qualities of physical spaces can affect human behavior; a shelter is no different. We need to be thinking about the potential impact the built environment can have on the well-being of survivors of abuse. To design spaces that support recovery for abuse survivors, we need to first understand their complex needs.

Walking through the front door of a shelter is not the end of a difficult journey—it’s the beginning of recovery.

Green Haven Shelter for Women in Orillia, Ontario
Photo: The Green Haven Shelter for Women in Orillia, Ontario; Credit: Tom Arban

One of the main reasons a woman might return to her abuser, even after seeking shelter, is the fear of change and the perceived comfort in returning to a predictable environment.

Uprooting her own life and, if she has dependent children, the life of her family can seem scarier than her former unsafe situation. It often takes multiple attempts to permanently leave her abuser, so when creating spaces that offer a new beginning for survivors, designers need to focus on easing the transition.

How can a building help propel a woman towards empowerment? How can design contribute to breaking the cycle of abuse for good?

Find Balance Between Connection and Privacy

Designing spaces to cultivate a sense of community inside the shelter is essential, but you also need to provide the spatial means for privacy. The challenge comes in achieving the right amount of both.

A woman should be given the autonomy to choose the level of engagement and interaction that works for her—and that may change during her different stages of recovery.

Offering spaces that encourage interaction help break the feelings of isolation that can come from abuse. By providing the framework for a community of peer support, survivors understand that they’re not alone.

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Communal living areas, kitchens, seating nooks or staircases can encourage social interaction and foster the peer support that is essential to easing the impact of this type of trauma.

Green Haven entrance canopy
Photo: Green Haven’s entrance canopy is clad in wood and brightly lit. This is an example of how using passive strategies to instill emotional safety can help make a space feel less institutional; Credit: Tom Arban

On the other hand, access to a private space for respite is equally important for women to feel comfortable and secure. Often, shelter bedrooms are filled with several beds to accommodate a greater number of residents. However, this can create a stressful environment for women sharing a room with strangers while in an often vulnerable and distressed state.

Having access to a private space gives the resident a sense of ownership and comfort, particularly if she is with her children.

Consideration of spatial adjacencies comes into play when separating public from semi-public zones. Private spaces need to feel just that. Wall, floor and ceiling assemblies should be designed to significantly reduce sound transfer between spaces, and reverberation should be considered when choosing finishes—giving occupants a true feeling of privacy.

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Provide Individual Flexibility

A domestic abuse survivor might have a triggering relationship with their home, so it’s important to give them the opportunity to personalize their new space. This can help the transition into a new place feel more comfortable.

In the design, it’s valuable for residents to be able to customize their environment and reclaim the sense of belonging that was eroded by abuse. Giving control over lighting levels—both natural and artificial—as well as temperature contributes to the feeling of “home.”

Avoiding fixed furniture will allow residents to have the autonomy to make their space feel more familiar or personalized. 

Foster Physical and Emotional Security

When we think of security, we often imagine physical barriers, bulletproof glass and surveillance cameras. While these are all essential to the overall safety of the building’s occupants, creating an atmosphere that feels physically and, equally as important, emotionally safe involves more than key fobs.

It’s vital to know the prompts that could make a resident feel at risk. If a woman doesn’t feel protected by the shelter, there’s a higher risk she’ll leave and potentially return to unsafe conditions.

Using passive strategies to instill emotional safety should be a priority in the design to make it feel less institutional. For example, ensuring the main entrance is well lit, inviting and provides a clear path to the interior will make it feel welcoming despite the robust security that is necessary for an exterior door of a shelter.

Providing a canopy or choosing materials that bring warmth sends the message that “you’re here now, and we will protect you.”

On the interior, space planning should be simple, straightforward and predictable. As a result, clear sightlines will reduce the need for security cameras and residents will be able to easily become familiar with the building.

While access to daylight and view to the exterior is essential, windows facing a public street could make a woman feel exposed and unsafe. Daylight and view windows should be strategically located to prevent surveillance from the exterior.

Green Haven Daylight
Photo: The design team wanted to create a powerful sense of arrival at the new Green Haven Shelter for Women. The shelter’s design includes a welcoming canopy that brings warmth to the façade; Credit: Tom Arban

Green Haven Shelter for Women Design Allows for Changing Needs

In the case of Green Haven Shelter for Women in Orillia, Ontario, our team was tasked with designing a purpose-built shelter that addressed the compounding issues arising in their former facility—a renovated single-family home.

The nearly 30-year-old organization gives survivors of abuse a safe space and allows them to live in an environment of mutual respect. But the former shelter building could no longer effectively serve the needs of its users. It had become outdated and uncomfortable.

The new facility is not only a considerable upgrade in terms of security, accessibility and space, but it was important to us to preserve the elements from the former building that were successful.

We resisted over-designing the new spaces to allow users to make it their own and adapt to their changing needs over time. Ultimately this will cultivate the intimate and familiar character of the original shelter.  

Path to Empowerment

When we use design to reignite a sense of belonging for abuse survivors, we can encourage them to feel empowered to find strength in moments of weakness and choose a path forward to recovery.

A shelter needs to be so much more than a room behind a locked door. The design contributes to an environment of normalcy, and the space should help to restore the individual’s sense of identity and their dignity.

About the Author: Robyn Whitwham is an architect based in Stantec’s Toronto office. She designs for healthcare and community support services with a focus on emergency shelters, transitional housing and mental health support centers.​

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