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May 3, 2019

The architecture of healing

Architects aren’t usually known as professionals who respond to people in crisis. But Tom Emodi and his colleagues at TEAL Architects are working to change this.

One of their latest projects is New Bryony House, a 24-bed emergency shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence in Dartmouth and Halifax.

This has left one question top of mind for Tom as he thinks about what women and children fleeing family violence might need. “How do we improve their experience while in shelter through design and create spaces that encourage healing?”

Throughout the design process, TEAL worked with Maria MacIntosh, executive director of the Halifax Transition House Association. Together, they worked closely with the Bryony House team and Board to design a new shelter from the ground up with purpose.

“It is important to create safe spaces that encourage autonomy and connection between the residents,” says Maria. “It is also important for children and youth to have safe spaces that support play and bonding between parent and child. This supports the journey of healing for women and families.”

The TEAL team participated in “day in the life” sessions to understand the needs of the women, children and operations from a staff perspective.

“It is critical to understand the relationship between the individual and the building,” explains Tom. “The spaces have to be comfortable, easy to understand and pleasant to use by people from many different cultural backgrounds.”

By the end of the consultation process, their mission was clear. They would design a sanctuary for healing.

TEAL’s Caroline Caskey developed the initial concept design. As an intern architect, she tried to downplay her background in nursing, but soon realized how valuable it was. After all, architecture has the power to bring healing too.

“You don’t just put your hand in a box of designs and pull one out,” she explains.

The triangle-shaped lot took a year to find. Its position enabled a design that maximizes natural daylight, with every bedroom getting direct sunlight at least once a day. South-facing common spaces also make full use of the sun’s healing qualities.

Everything about the building caters to the clients. A “warming kitchen” lets a mother prepare milk for her baby without interrupting meal preparation in the main kitchen.

Sightlines and safety are also key for clients and staff. Women and children who have left a situation of family violence are also beginning to heal from multiple levels of trauma. It’s important children are able to see their mothers, and vice versa, while completing daily tasks such as cooking and cleaning.

Even the finishing materials have a purpose. Wood and soft textures provide a simple, warm and welcoming feel.

“The building is designed with the ambition to lift people’s spirits,” says Tom. “Everything we are trying to do is to make the experience lighter for everyone.”

New Bryony House is funded by the National Housing Co-Investment Fund, a National Housing Strategy (NHS) initiative.