How Architecture Can Help Veterans Heal

In honor of Veterans Day, we caught up with Sheila Christian, the author of NCARB’s Continuum Education (CE) course, “Architecture to Calm the Unseen Trauma of Combat Veterans.” 

Tell us a bit about the Continuum Education course you authored, “Architecture to Calm the Unseen Trauma of Combat Veterans.” 

The CE course that I authored is a personal pursuit of combining my architectural knowledge and my deep care for the combat veteran community. As a military spouse and architect, I felt it is my responsibility to inform the greater design community about how our built environment can negatively or positively affect combat veterans. The CE course gives an overview of how the combat veteran brain views and perceives space, and how designers can use this knowledge to create calming spaces for these individuals. 

When people think about caring for veterans and for individuals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), they don’t always think about architecture. Explain why architecture is such a critical part of dealing with and alleviating trauma. 

Combat veterans have been trained to be highly sensitive of their environments as a means to survive in war. This hypersensitivity cannot be turned off just because they are no longer in a war zone. As people today spend the majority of their day inside built environments, architecture has a huge impact on these hypersensitive individuals. When designed with them in mind, the architecture of a space turns into a healing tool. Conversely, architecture has the ability to inflict stress as well as medical issues, such as migraines and headaches, when the needs of these individuals have not been considered. When spaces have a negative impact on these soldiers, they stop utilizing those stress-inducing buildings. This can lead to combat soldiers isolating themselves and falling into a depressive state. 

What inspired you to start using your skills to serve veterans? 

I was inspired to use my skills to serve veterans as I personally watched my husband return from combat and struggle with reintegration into our built environment post-combat. I started to identify ways to make him more at ease within our home and picked up on what spaces in the public sector he felt more comfortable in. I then started to see that it was a universal issue with combat veterans and that this was an avenue that needed architects’ attention. 

The concept and practice of trauma-informed care is continuing to gain traction in various fields. How do you see trauma-informed architecture continuing to evolve over the next several years? 

I see this trauma-informed architecture helping to inform veteran hospital design as well as breaking into sectors such as shopping malls, higher education campuses, and public event spaces. As those who have experienced this trauma utilize all the spaces listed, designers and architects should be altering these spaces and making them better for the full community that inhabits these built environments. 

What is one thing you wish people knew about this work? 

If I could have people take away one thing from my work, it would be to understand that the overstimulated environment we live in day-to-day often has severe impacts on those in our community who are hypersensitive. And the design community has the responsibility to keep these individuals in mind in order to provide them with spaces they can enjoy and feel comfortable in. 


Interested in learning more? Take Sheila’s CE course, “Architecture to Calm the Unseen Trauma of Combat Veterans.”