Inside Out/Outside In: Investigating the implications of the built environment on Veterans diagnosed with combat-related PTSD

The Social Costs of War: Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. PANELISTS: Donna Cranston, Executive Director of Defenders of Freedom; SFC Jody Thompson (RET); Tina Bass, M.S., LPC, Psychotherapist, UT Dallas Center for Brain Health; Christina Donaldson, Interior Design Strategist, Gensler. MODERATORS: Dr. Alicia Meuret, Director, Anxiety and Depression Research Center, SMU; and Scott Gleeson ’09, Independent Visual Artist.

The Hamon blog team invited Christina Donaldson, an interior designer and researcher, who participated in the panel discussion at Hamon on PTSD, The Social Costs of War: Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming, on April 5th, to contribute a posting on her research. This panel discussion was organized in conjunction with the Hawn Gallery exhibition, Travels in Ithaca, on view at Hamon until May 16th. Donaldson’s research examines the intersection of interior design and psychology, and how this interdisciplinary approach may yield a better understanding of combat-related PTSD.

You may be wondering, “What does interior design have to do with PTSD, or even psychology”?  Consider this statistic – according to the EPA, as Americans we spend 90% of our time indoors (EPA, 2001).  As designers and architects, we are designing spaces for humans, and reasonably, we need to have a better understanding of humans to create proper spaces. These spaces may be made more conducive to enhanced learning, relaxation, or even healing.  Therefore, the main question follows – can interior design contribute to the well-being of Veterans diagnosed with combat-related PTSD?  And if so, how?

I am interested in sensation and perception.  More specifically, I’m interested in threshold, which is the amount of sensory information an individual deems too much, too little, or just right.  Even more specifically, what happens in the case of those with combat-related PTSD?  Are the sensory thresholds different for people diagnosed with combat-related PTSD?  And if so, how?  Do these thresholds relate to their preferences of interior environments?  How?  Exploring this type of investigation requires a multi-disciplinary approach.  Theories borrowed from psychology can start to tell the story.  Without a doubt, PTSD is very complex, with several implications, including everything from co-morbid conditions, such as traumatic brain injury (TBI) that may accompany PTSD to the social variables soldiers may experience upon returning from war.[1]

Environment as Therapy vs Therapeutic Environments

What if our interior environments could help us heal?  What if built elements in certain configurations can stimulate senses and trigger memories in a way to encourage healing?  Think about it as “Environment as Therapy”, as opposed to thinking of the interior environment as a platform for therapy to occur (Hartman, 2012).[2]

The fundamental question of how interior design can contribute to the well-being of veterans diagnosed with PTSD will only be answered as research is developed within the fields of interior design and architecture.  My research begins to fill a gap in research and provides a bridge by developing an evidence-based process that may allow others to explore this complex relationship of sensory response, built environment, and health outcomes for Veterans diagnosed with combat-related PTSD.


Hartman, J. G. (2012). Therapeutic Spaces For Veterans With PTSD (Doctoral dissertation, Ohio State University).

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2001). Healthy Buildings, Healthy People: A Vision for the 21st Century, n.d., para. 1.Retrieved December 21, 2013, from

[1] The goal is of this research is not for prescriptive purposes. I’m not suggesting if you do “x” then “y” will result.  This is a starting point, it’s about asking and exploring, and developing a foundation others can build on. 

[2] I am not a counselor, psychologist, or any other type of health care professional.  I’m an interior designer with a keen interest in sensation + perception and health + well-being.  My hope is by asking these questions and reaching across disciplines, it will not only help raise awareness for PTSD but to also help inspire other designers and architects as well. As licensed professionals, we have the responsibility of ensuring the health, safety, and welfare of the occupants that use the spaces we design.  This should not be limited to “do no harm”, but should include “do more good.”  


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