Borne out of the momentum of the protest movements calling for justice for Black lives, ESKW/A’s JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusivity) committee is dedicated to identifying and confronting the oppressive paradigms that work against who we are, and the communities served by our firm’s work. In addition to leading regular meetings, JEDI develops opportunities to platform marginalized community voices in our design process and invite guest speakers from adjacent fields and institutions to enrich our professional knowledge.

The JEDI committee was overjoyed to invite Daughtry Carstarphen, AIA—former Senior Architect at ESKW/A, and current Vice President for Capital Projects at the Bowery Residents’ Committee (BRC)—back home as one of the first guests for JEDI’s roundtable discussion initiative. We kicked off the event with an overview of ESKW/A’s past and ongoing joint projects with the BRC, followed by some questions prepared by the JEDI committee, and topped off with an open Q & A session. With decades of experience in the not-for-profit and architecture sectors, Daughtry has unique insights into the challenges that both sectors face throughout the development, execution and maintenance of buildings and supportive programs serving NYC’s vulnerable populations.

In 2018, the BRC and ESKW/A successfully completed a novel, housing development program at Landing Road, which combined a 200-bed shelter with 135 units of low-income, supportive housing. The “Homestrech Housing” model, piloted by Landing Road, reinvests the surplus income generated by the shelter into the supportive housing program of the building. Transitional housing, like homeless shelters, is a pillar of the BRC’s spectrum of housing programs, however, it is not a substitute for permanent, affordable housing. As Daughtry expressed during our discussion, “housing is healthcare,” and the first crucial step in many people’s journey to self-sufficiency and security.

ESKW/A has a long legacy of designing affordable and supportive housing, so having our work framed as healthcare was a good reminder: How can we be prepared to design buildings and spaces that are attuned to trauma and support end-user wellbeing and agency?

For our current joint project, Inwood Shelter and Memorial, ESKW/A’s team has been working diligently with the BRC to not only provide a quality shelter and supportive program for men, but also to do justice to a different kind of trauma—one tied to place instead of a body.

The site for the Inwood Shelter is situated on a historical burial ground for enslaved Africans and borders several Lenape ceremonial-sites. Developments in the area had previously desecrated these places and threatened to erase their history. Over the course of several months, our team, along with the BRC, the Inwood community, and a diverse advisory group reflected on this history and concluded that “the link between the history of this site, and who is homeless in NYC is so direct that you have to build a shelter there” (Daughtry). Currently, a team of Indigenous and Black architects and designers are spearheading the memorial design for the Inwood Sacred Center, which will create a dedicated place to reflect on the site’s history.

When it comes to designing spaces for people recovering from trauma and scarcity, Daughtry emphasized the importance of being curious, flexible, and communicative. From supportive program staff to funding agency representatives to mission-driven clients, many people have stakes in and opinions on how shelters and supportive housing projects are designed and maintained. In other words, designing for these kinds of spaces and end-users is not only a matter of mechanically executing a rubric addressing the needs of one particular group. Rather, it requires consistent communication and compromise between all parties, including maintenance staff, end-users, clients, government agencies and more. For example, an interior finish may be selected by the design team and client for how it aesthetically enhances a living space, however, if it’s not durable, it may create additional work for maintenance staff, reduce the quality of the space in the long-term, and create unnecessary repair costs. Another example brought up during the discussion revolved around accounting for triggers caused by certain building features. For end-users who were formerly incarcerated, the sound of banging doors can be triggering. Soft-close doors are a great solution, but their inclusion in a building can raise costs.

Source: Architectural Principles In The Service of Trauma Informed Design

As designers, juggling these aspects may seem overwhelming, but Daughtry encouraged us to strive to “design above the baseline,” stand up for better choices, and be attuned to the unique strengths, limitations, and resources of our projects. Although it is unrealistic (and not in our best interest) to create a “universally” applicable design standard for building spaces for vulnerable populations, Daughtry shared some resources outlining spatial features that facilitate healing and reduce environmental triggers.

 Source: Architectural Principles In The Service of Trauma Informed Design

Although many of us have never experienced housing instability, several of the principles are strategies we practice when we create a sense of comfort and belonging in our own homes. Our experiences may differ from those of our end-user clients, but we can tap into that shared human need to feel safe, seen, and independent in the spaces we reside. As we practice that awareness, stand up for better industry standards and keep the conversation going, we can help transform our communities and prove that housing is healthcare for individuals and the wellbeing of our society.

Thank you Daughtry, the BRC and everyone who contributed to this thoughtful discussion.

About the Bowery Residents’ Committee:

In the 1970s a handful of Bowery residents struggling with addiction organized to create a self-help, day program where men seeking sobriety could support one another. Since then, BRC’s legacy of client-centered, hand-up-not-hand-out program has expanded into homeless outreach, a spectrum of housing programs, and workforce development, to name a few. Currently, BRC has over 12,000 employees who maintain around 35 programs distributed across every NYC borough—except Manhattan.

Client centered programming at this scale is challenging, but as Daughtry noted, deeply integral to BRC’s mission, ethic, and holistic services. Today, BRC leverages data-analysis to help evaluate the outcome and impact of the organization’s many programs. Despite this, receiving and processing direct feedback from end-users and staff and translating that data into program guidelines or design standards, requires time and collaboration with local and government level institutions.