Designing Space for Healing

Designing Space for Healing

How can design help people better handle the hardships of addiction and homelessness? This spring sophomores in an Interior Architecture studio are asking themselves that question as they work to figure out how best to contribute to the psychological wellbeing of adults on the road to recovery.

“This is an incredibly sophisticated and compassionate group of undergraduate students,” says Elizabeth Debs, the adjunct faculty member who’s teaching the studio. “I’m so pleased that we can offer them a real-world opportunity to develop their design skills.”

The opportunity arose when the Whitestone Life Center, a nonprofit in North Providence, approached RISD for help with redesigning its group residence for men transitioning from homelessness to permanent housing. Founded by Baptist ministers, the organization provides residents with an immersive recovery program that includes counseling, health care and work and financial literacy training.

“This is an incredibly sophisticated and compassionate group of undergraduate students. I’m so pleased we can offer this real-world opportunity to develop their design skills.”
Interior Architecture Critic Elizabeth Debs

In addition to the services the center provides, “a physical environment that supports consistency, orderliness and cleanliness is important, too,” notes Whitestone Vice President David Butera. “Many have come from chaos and disorder, so the design of the men’s individual rooms can be a critical support in their progress.”

At a critique in early May, students presented their work in progress to Debs, Butera and Tucker Houlihan MFA 02 FD, a technical assistant who has been working closely with them in RISD’s Mason Woodshop to develop full-scale details of their design elements that will ultimately allow Whitestone to construct selected designs.

A flexible bedroom design by Ashley Chen would let Whitestone residents easily personalize their living spaces.

Ashley Chen 19 IA proposes a flexible design featuring horizontal wooden slats mounted to the walls that support shelves, desks and other practical bedroom accessories. The color palette and uniform look of the system transform what was a cold, industrial space into a kind of mid-century modern sanctuary. “My goal,” she explains, “is to provide residents with a setup they can easily personalize to give them some sense of control over their lives.”

“I really like your concept,” said Butera, reviewing her drawings in the CIT Building. “The look is neat and clean and the elements look simple to build.” Houlihan agreed and noted that the innovative design would work for both single and double bedrooms, equitably dividing the double rooms so that both residents sharing the space would benefit from the natural light and be able to enjoy some privacy by leaving their wardrobe doors open.

Focused on the single rooms, Megnxi Zhang 19 IA is proposing to maximize the available space through a drop-down Murphy-style bed. She’s designing complementary furniture pieces—in a neutral palette—built of wood, fabric, cork, foam and vinyl. She’s also opting to open up the existing closet to create a walk-in space complete with a built-in organizational system, removable hamper and mildew-thwarting heated towel rack where residents could hang damp towels and clothes.

Clearly impressed with Zhang’s model and presentation, Debs notes that, “showing people in the space really shows how the room would be used with the bed in both positions.” Houlihan’s only recommendation for revising the design is to place the desk on casters so that residents could sit on the edge of their beds while working at the desk or in the light of the window.

Emily Brenner impressed critics with her clean, modern kitchen design.

Leaving bedroom design to others, Emily Brenner 19 IA is working on a prototype for the Whitestone Life Center’s shared kitchen. After she presented her work in progress, Butera gave her clean and modern approach a thumbs up and noted that since two of the Center’s current residents are interested in pursuing culinary careers, a high-end kitchen would beautifully support their aspirations.

text by Simone Solondz / photos by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH

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