Architectural Firm Creates Spaces for Healing


Most of us take the safety of our homes for granted but for individuals who have experienced trauma, the need for a space in which they can feel secure can be a desperate one.

The team at the Ferndale-based architectural firm Fusco, Shaffer & Pappas, Inc. (FSP) understand that need and have dedicated themselves to working with local nonprofit groups to provide housing and other facilities for people who have experienced extraordinary upheaval in their lives.

“About half of our work is with nonprofits,” says Jim Pappas, president of Fusco, Shaffer & Pappas, Inc. “Even when I first joined the firm in 1984, its owner worked with nonprofits. The idea is that anyone can design another strip mall, but working with these groups helps make a difference.”

The experience that the FSP team has gained over the last 40 years working with community service organizations has given them a unique skill set, one based in trauma-informed design.

Trauma-informed design seeks to create physical spaces that support healing, safety and well-being. It takes into account the reality that environments can affect identify, dignity and self-worth and looks at ways to promote empowerment for those recovering from life-altering experiences.

FSP’s most recent projects include shelter space for unhoused Detroiters in partnership with the Pope Francis Center, housing for abused children and teens with Christ Child Services, and housing for victims of human trafficking for Vista Maria.

“Each organization has a specific need and it’s our job to try to learn how they operate, what they’re trying to achieve, and how we can address those needs and turn it into a building,” says Pappas.


“For a lot of the individuals these groups are working with, whether they are homeless, abused, whether they are seniors or children, we want to use trauma-informed design to provide safety and trust as well as beauty, community and joy, if we can,” he adds.

Tools they use to achieve this type of design include abundant natural light, access to nature and outdoor space, and natural materials and color palettes rather than the typical, often dour, institutional décor.

“These children and adults have been through a lot,” Pappas says. “We don’t want these spaces to be gloomy or scary. You can (affect that) with architecture. These places are never going to be like someone’s home, but we still want to create a calming environment where people can feel safe and secure.”

The designs also need to address the reality of what many residents are coping with during their stays. For example, Pappas and his team recently completed design for housing that would shelter young boys affected by abuse. The design incorporated large, open windows for natural light but were built with materials that had extra durability to keep the risk of breakage low.

“When you have kids who have been that traumatized, they get angry and they can take it out on themselves and on others,” says Pappas. “So you need to create spaces that provide visibility (so that children and caregivers can be seen for their safety.) It’s a careful balance, though, because this is their home, this is where they live. It’s important that they feel comfortable.”

In another instance, the FSP team have been working with the Pope Francis Center to build a shelter for unhoused individuals that would take into account some of the special emotional needs of this population.

“A lot of homeless people are afraid to go indoors because they have been robbed or beaten in the past,” says Pappas. Through Father Tim McCabe at the center, Pappas learned of shelters out west that provide safe outdoor spaces for the unhoused, allowing them to take advantage of services without feeling confined or having to relive past traumas.

To achieve a similar space that could stay open during Michigan’s frigid winters, the FSP team incorporated heated concrete and roof top warmers into their design of an open area, so people can safely stay outside but be safe at any time of year.

This is the kind of problem-solving and active advocacy that Pappas and his team will continue to provide for their nonprofit partners, building on that philosophy that has long been engrained within the award-winning firm.

“It’s everyone’s responsibility,” Papps says, “to try to change things just a little bit for the better.”