History off of the paper

History off of the paper

History in the physical and visual

In an earlier post, I talked about my interview with a client about why old homes are worth saving, and he took me on a tour to share the history while pointing out details. In our interview, our client highlighted the importance of restoring old buildings because “[they] are tangible elements of history,” and emphasized that seeing history in the physical and visual is much more enjoyable than reading it on paper. 

He was absolutely right. During the tour, I found myself getting more and more excited about history, especially of historic buildings. Seeing history in-person instead of just reading text connected me to the stories much more than I had before. 

All that said, it is ironic that I’m writing about how seeing history in physical form connected me to it much more than reading about the history. To combat the irony just a bit, below are photos with tidbits from our interview and tour.


Photo details of our client’s house


After the Revolutionary War, some Hessian mercenaries (recruited from Germany to fill the British ranks) were left on the continent. They brought some German design elements/heritage with them which blended over time with emerging American preferences. You can see this in the hand carvings and style of the mantles (6 were fireplaces in the house, some restored now).

Downstairs by the kitchen there’s a china cabinet that the current owners painted dark green in keeping with the old color scheme. But if you look inside, you can see the old paint which is a brighter green – more of a lime green. This color was popular among German settlers, including Mennonites, Lutherans, and others who included that color as they moved down into the Shenandoah area from Central Pennsylvania.

Remnants of the lime-green paint are also on this door.

Round brick columns, typical to the time period.

Throughout the years, larger rooms were sectioned off into smaller ones, like the Great Room. They can tell where the Great Room was because the boards are perfectly aligned between a couple existing rooms. Uniform board lengths with no cuts was a symbol of status, which would have been put in the Great Room.

The milk paint on the detailing in this room is mulberry colored. This seems to be a popular color of milk paint for the time.

There isn’t written history of this, but it’s been passed down orally that a cannonball broke this upstairs window.

Builders numbered the attic timber beams with carved roman numerals so they would know the order to put them in when they hauled them to the house. 

Wooden pegs in the attic to secure the beams together.

A hanging stepped flue in the attic – a very unique element.

Just for fun. As a photographer, I always love when furry friends come to say hello in my shoots.

Finally, here are a few more pictures from my photoshoot of our client’s porch after the historical porch renovation.

Trauma-Informed Design

Trauma-Informed Design

*Content Forecast: This blog includes discussion about trauma. These discussions are located in the First, a quick explanation of trauma. section and are broad definitions of trauma, not specific stories.

bonus room with couch and chair. Light during golden hour streams through the window.

In recent years, the conversation around mental health has expanded to encompass various aspects of our lives, including the spaces we inhabit. Architecture, traditionally seen as a field focused on aesthetics and functionality, is now exploring a more empathetic approach known as trauma-informed design. This design philosophy prioritizes the well-being of individuals who have experienced trauma, recognizing the profound impact that the built environment can have on their healing journey. 

In May of 2023, I attended Trauma Informed Design: Breaking the Stigma, a Webinar by Lynsey Hankins and Sarah Gomez. As someone who has experienced trauma, the emerging field of trauma-informed design is of particular interest to me. It’s also relevant on a large scale to make spaces more comfortable and empowering. One example in the global context is the collective trauma experienced from the COVID-19 Pandemic, which still impacts many of us on different scales.

*First, a quick explanation of trauma.

Mind describes trauma: “Trauma is when we experience very stressful, frightening or distressing events that are difficult to cope with or out of our control. It could be one incident, or an ongoing event that happens over a long period of time.” They explain that “most of us will experience an event in our lives that could be considered traumatic” even though it will affect people in different ways. The effects can last long after the initial incident.

Trauma is sometimes split into three broad categories: acute, chronic, and complex. There are also many types including physical, emotional, collective, cultural, generational, natural disaster-related, and many more.

The Built Environment and Trauma



Our surroundings play a significant role in shaping our experiences and emotions. Trauma-informed architecture acknowledges that traditional design principles may inadvertently trigger or exacerbate trauma symptoms. For example, harsh lighting, loud noises, and confined spaces can be particularly distressing for individuals who have experienced trauma. Conversely, a well-designed and thoughtful space can create a sense of comfort and contribute positively to a person’s healing process.

As Lynsey and Sarah explained, “The goal of trauma-informed design is to use empathy to create environments that promote a sense of calm, safety, dignity, empowerment, and well-being for all occupants.” The lens of trauma-informed design is a broad and intersectional lens. “Design decisions should be filtered through the overlapping lenses of psychology, neuroscience, physiology, and cultural factors”.

Design Considerations


Soft blanket draped across a chair.


Trauma-Informed Design is frequently talked about in regards to public spaces such as hospitals and educational buildings, but it can be applied to any space that we inhabit. There are many many ways to apply this design, but here are just a few things to consider:


1. Safety and Security:

        • Prioritize creating spaces that feel safe and secure.
        • Clear wayfinding signs, well-lit areas, and open spaces to reduce feelings of confinement.

2. Sensory Considerations:

        • Incorporate natural light, soft textures, and calming colors.
        • Minimize loud noises and disruptive elements
        • Include natural elements to your design. There is wide-spread documentation that connection to nature provides physical and psychological health benefits.

3. Empowerment and Choice:

        • Allow individuals to have control over their surroundings when possible.
        • Provide flexible spaces that accommodate different needs and preferences.
        • People can use their own artwork in communal spaces. Including people in a space gives choice, control, and belonging.

4. Cultural Sensitivity:

        • Recognize and respect cultural backgrounds when designing spaces.
        • Reflect inclusivity and avoid triggering cultural trauma.

5. Community and Connection:

        • Foster a sense of community that encourages social interaction.
        • Incorporate communal areas and support networks to promote healing through connection.

The ways this theory can be applied will differ between buildings and inhabitants, but a few key things to consider are spatial layout, lighting, paint colors, noise reduction, biophilia, adding soothing art and visual interest, and designing with the 5 senses in mind.

Trauma Informed Architecture

Trauma-informed architecture represents a shift in the way we approach design, emphasizing empathy and understanding. As the architecture world continues to explore the intersection of mental health and the built environment, trauma-informed architecture illustrates the transformative power of thoughtful design in fostering healing and resilience.  As Architects and Designers, we have the unique opportunity and responsibility to influence people’s lives through the built-environment, and trauma-informed design is an important lens for developing our designs. 


Intersectionality: Designing Truly Inclusive Spaces

Intersectionality: Designing Truly Inclusive Spaces

By Aliyah D. White


Inclusivity and diversity are buzzwords that have continued to gain traction in the design world. However, issues such as race, gender, and ability are often distinctly separated, resulting in the unique problems of people who belong to more than one marginalized group being glossed over. Acknowledging the intersectionality of these issues can develop ways to better identify and intervene for the benefit of all people using a given space.


The term intersectionality was created in 1989 by activist and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw to illustrate the way an individual’s characteristics such as race, gender, class, and sexual orientation can overlap and influence their lived experiences. Merriam-Webster defines intersectionality as, “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.”

Definition of Intersectionality.

As a theory, intersectionality is not as much about having control over identity and expression as it is about the negative effects systemic discrimination has on people who lay at the intersection of multiple groups. Addressing intersectionality in the design process provides the opportunity to consider all users, give great care for who is at an advantage or disadvantage in each space, and figure out how we can level the playing field.


Architecture through the lens of Intersectionality

As architects, it is critical that we acknowledge how limited our own perspectives can be when tackling these problems. It is important to lead with empathy and consult with people who have differing views from our own. No amount of research into an issue can amount to collaborating with people who have that lived experience and know exactly what insights and recommendations will be most helpful. This is the most important part of creating a more inclusive future.

When thinking about increasing the inclusivity of the spaces we design, The University of Buffalo’s Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access has created an intriguing methodology called their “8 Goals of Universal Design”. They are as follows:

  1.     Body Fit – accommodating a wide range of body sizes and abilities.
  2.     Comfort – keeping demands within desirable limits of body function and perception.
  3.     Awareness – ensuring that critical information for use is easily perceived.
  4.     Understanding – making methods of operation and use intuitive, clear, and unambiguous.
  5.     Wellness – contributing to health promotion, avoidance of disease, and protection from hazards.
  6.     Social Integration – treating all groups with dignity and respect.
  7.     Personalization – incorporating opportunities for choice and the expression of individual preferences.
  8.     Cultural Appropriateness – respecting and reinforcing cultural values, and the social and environmental contexts of any design project.
List of the 8 Goals of Universal Design.


At the heart of inclusive design is consideration. Often, we find that one simple change to make a space more accessible to one group will benefit other groups as well. Within our own firm, we have designers who come from various backgrounds and lived experiences. Designing spaces that we can all enjoy is a top priority for us and implementing practices such as sustainability and accessibility is just the tip of the iceberg of what we can do for our communities to create environments that all kinds of people can comfortably inhabit.

Empathy and Compassion in Design

Empathy and Compassion in Design

As architects and designers, it has historically been our job to take a client’s vision from start to finish. But in more recent times, the role of the designer has evolved to include a deeper focus on how we can shape the way people interact with each other. Using empathy as a design tool is one way we set ourselves apart from other designers who may give you plans that are just adequate enough for a permit. Empathic design aims to create spaces for people to share and build empathy for one another while we, as designers, simultaneously build empathy for the people we are designing for. We must engage our hearts to make meaningful change in our communities.

Open floorplan of living room and kitchen.

As a result of intentional listening with our clients, we designed this open floorplan at the Harrisonburg Farmhouse to be a space for family and friends to gather and build meaningful relationships.

I like to think of it in three stages, which you can read more about here. It begins with cognitive empathy — identifying how someone feels, then emotional empathy — understanding how that person feels, and finally, compassionate empathy — feeling with someone and being moved into action. As a student in undergrad, compassionate empathy was the biggest principle in my projects both in and out of the classroom. However, the work that it takes to design based on empathy — the right way — is not always an easy task.

primary bathroom

Roll-in Shower at Casa Cielo.

Opening our hearts takes energy, vulnerability, and willpower. The things that we learn when we listen to people’s adversities can be heavy to take on, so it should be approached with an understanding of our own emotional availability. Nevertheless, listening to hear and understand is the main ingredient to figuring out how to best help people. Using empathy in design is being considerate of an individual or group’s unique needs and finding solutions that are tailored towards them. Setting aside our preconceived notions about peoples’ experiences and ailments is critical because those assumptions are what keep us from truly understanding one another. We can then use our knowledge and experience as designers to create the best solutions.

Waverly Apartments walking path.

Walking path at Waverly Place Apartments for the community to enjoy the scenic surroundings.

Holding space for others and actively listening, as in focusing on that person and not your own feelings or what you think is best, is the only way to truly have a compassionate interaction. Approaching people in need will require having difficult conversations and can get uncomfortable. On an individual level, I implore everyone to try to approach life with more empathy. It is an ability that can positively affect the way we react to and connect with people in all spheres of life. 

In our profession it is critical to be able to design using all of our senses, and listening is one of the most important. If we listen with the intention to hear and understand the information with both our minds and hearts, we can begin to create empathetic solutions that build a stronger community for all.

Why should we save old buildings?

Why should we save old buildings?

In the fall, I had the pleasure of meeting with a client for an interview about why we should save old buildings

We first met our client when he brought us an old picture of their home. The existing house no longer had the same porch shown in the picture, and our presented challenge was to recreate a combination of the existing and the old porch from the photograph. I knew that our client had a passion for historic buildings, so I visited to learn more about his thoughts on old homes and restoration. 

During the interview, I was welcomed inside the home to receive a tour of the historic details. I was fascinated. I came into the interview with a mild appreciation for history and left with interest in more of a tangible and emotional way. The passion for restoration and details was infectious. 

I learned a great deal about the history of the home and details throughout the house – too many to put in short blog form. However, our client’s response to “Why should we save old buildings?” is poignant and does a beautiful job of summing up our conversation.

Why should we save old buildings?

“An old house torn down is lost forever. Old houses are tangible elements of history. Not many people enjoy history on paper in library archives or summarized in sterilized textbooks. But old homes are tangible and intimate evidence of hardship, war, farming, community, and visibly seeing artistic and pragmatic elements of pioneering families. It is the difference between a replica quilt or the old original, stitched by hand in candlelight, seeing careful but irregular stitching, and one’s imagination can connect with past generations. One would not think much about Hessian mercenaries fighting for Britain during the war of 1812, but upon losing the war, the mercenaries were left to fend for themselves in the new land, and some took up wood carving, and our carved fireplaces are memorials to that small bit of overlooked history. Old houses preserve intimate details of children’s scribbles, of successive changes over time as needs changed. Old houses are like museum outposts scattered in our neighborhoods.” 

The complexity of history

Though the house and stories are beautiful, our client also pointed out the complexity of history and reasons why buildings exist. Part of the history of this home in particular is that in ~ 1740, a man bought the land near a couple of forts and fortified his home. This man’s view about the Native Americans of the area was extreme, and he wanted them killed. Part of the story is that much of the land of Virginia was inhabited by people who were forcibly displaced and killed. All of this history is woven into the origin story of buildings too, and it’s important that it is noted.

In this relatively short history of the U.S., it was unique to be able to hear stories passed down through writings and oral traditions of this area. I’m grateful for clients willing to share their passions and to let us be a part of what they dream up.