Skip to main content

Designing to preserve spirituality and culture

May 08, 2014

When designing a behavioral health facility, the licensing requirements, best practices and research ensure that all safety measures are implemented in order to keep clients, staff, and visitors safe. In addition, a major necessary piece is to think about the specifics of the population that will be treated inside the facility.

For 17 students at the Arizona State University (ASU) Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts (Tempe, Ariz.), this lesson about specific populations wasn’t taught by a slideshow or a book, but rather a hands-on collaboration with a local treatment program. Phoenix-based Native American Connections (NAC), a non-profit organization that provides addiction treatment and recovery in urban and tribal communities throughout the Southwest, connected with instructors at ASU to share an idea of collaboration. After the meeting, both the instructors at ASU and leaders of NAC were enthusiastic about the new project in which students in the design studio would work on the design concept for NAC’s new facilities.

As part of a "studio" course at the design school, students from various disciplines – architecture, landscape architecture, biomedical informatics, healthcare and design research, and exercise and wellness – partnered with NAC to focus on a real-life problem.

The two-part project included a Level II mental health residential treatment center for urban Native Americans, which the students and NAC refer to as “the wellness center,” and an affordable housing project called Workforce Housing. The education began with a two-week trip to Australia, where the students, three instructors and NAC’s Chief Executive Officer, Dede Devine, observed how aboriginals live, connected with a university that served them, and met with key individuals working in this area.

In addition to the educational trip to Australia, the students traveled closer to home and had the opportunity to visit the existing NAC programs in Arizona. During these visits, students were able to sit in on native traditional healing practices and cultural enhancement activities, and speak to clients in order to better understand who they were designing for. “One of the biggest takeaways is that we saw how complicated and serious the problems that these people are dealing with are, and how to incorporate that into the design of our spaces,” says Alexander Tsaparis, an architecture student.

Students also learned from the administrative staff and residents who are in the facilities every day – what their expectations are, how they are using the space, and what the opportunities are for change.

Seeing the older facilities, one was in a 1948 home that had been used for drug treatment for 35 years and the other was in a motel that was built in the 1950s, helped give students an idea of the need for new facilities and the importance of the design. “I think they learned from the beginning that the facility is important in the relationship, but that it’s really how the facility interacts with the programming that we provide that makes the change,” explains Devine.

Designing for the population

The wellness center is a 60-bed holistic and co-educational program. The students designed the facility so it incorporated both the private and community functions. For example, at the front of the building there is a family visitation and education area and areas for residents to interact with outside members of the community – case managers, parole officers, etc. There is also a community group therapy room that can be utilized for community Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings.

The private aspects of the facility were ones that integrated the culture into the space. For example, it was important to create spaces that were flexible to accommodate a variety of different activities and ceremonies. Other spaces that were meant to be more spiritual would be designated secluded rooms and would maintain the spirituality of the functions that occurred there. In the design, a room housed a talking circle and a sweat lodge.    

A large outdoor courtyard in the middle of the landscape separates the private and public functions of the facility. “It was important to Native American Connections that the privacy of the treatment facility was maintained but that the campus allowed for people from the community to come and be involved,” says Ana Matijevic, a student in the course.

Although landscape is always important, the students came to understand its significance within this population. Between the housing facility and the wellness facility, the students designed an interior rainwater collection basin to support a native habitat.

While NAC made clear the importance to create a barrier between the housing and wellness facilities, a design such as this eliminates the need for a fence that may feel jail-like. “It starts to soften the lines a bit while indicating that these are separate buildings and do have their own requirements for safety and privacy,” explains Shelby Riddell, an architecture student.   

Benefits from real-life experiences

James Shraiky, assistant professor and director of Healthcare Design Initiatives at ASU, says that there are two outcomes with a project such as this. One is the product, which is the design, the research summary, and the model of the facility. The other is the students’ collaborative and professional experience.

Since students worked across disciplines, much of the beginning of the course focused on what each individual could bring to the project and why each part is important. The students faced many challenges in designing the facility. For example, all decisions were funding-driven, which required students to research such elements as characteristics and limitations of the site (zoning, parking, space available, access, etc).

At the end of the semester, students presented to NAC, the community and a local architecture firm. The architecture firm, which was integrated with the students throughout the semester, received the students’ designs and assumed the project lead. A handful of students will intern with the firm through completion. Building starts in September 2014.  

‘Important to weigh the upsides’

NAC has realized that funding isn’t a job it can do alone, hence the need and drive for creative collaboration. Social service commitments have played a large role in the business and social model of the organization.

Because this project had extra hands that included NAC staff, ASU instructors, architecture firms, and students, it’s clear that the $21 million project didn’t take the simplest route. However, Devine says it’s important to weigh the upsides. “It was definitely that we have a better project because of [the collaboration] and that the students will eventually save us some money as well on the design side,” she notes. Those two aspects alone, she says, were enough for the organization to decide to move forward.

She says one of the aspects of the relationship with the students that doesn’t always happen with architectural firms, is that they really understood and listened to the client. “Every time we provided them feedback, they came back with one or two new design elements without any argument or pushback,” she says. “I’ve worked with a lot of architects throughout my time here at Native American Connections and sometimes they build and don’t really understand the needs of the clients – both NAC as the client and the people that we serve.”

Back to Top