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At Low Cost, A Room of One’s Own

Question: How can your work with personal spaces improve low-cost housing?

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Sam Gosling: Sure, yeah. So well, I first got interested in this idea that we might be able to design spaces that really suit people's personalities when I learned about the work of Chris Travis, who runs an architecture firm in Austin. And what he does is, he conducts these in-depth interviews with people and constructs these spaces that speak to their basic psychological needs, often needs that they haven't really articulated before. They're not really aware how he does it. And he creates these magnificent houses that the people—seems to fit with their lifestyle and all kinds of associations that they have had with space, most of which were learnt very, very young. Now, but of course those are only good if you're sufficiently wealthy to be able to build a house. And Chris Travis has been very interested in trying to say, well, can we apply these methods to other groups of people, you know, for whom housing is just as important? And so recently he is engaged in a project with a low-cost community housing organization in renovating some housing for people who are homeless or in danger of becoming homeless, to try and see if he can use his methods to try and make people stay in these places longer. Often people go into these community housing projects but leave pretty quickly. And part of the reason, we think, is because they're not taking psychology in to account when they create these spaces. The typical solution to low-cost housing renovations is to go in, repaint the walls, put new fixtures, new doorknobs, maybe, you know, new curtains and so on—put all those things up, send the people in there and say, okay, there's your house. But it's not really crafted to the psychology of the person. So what we're doing right now is, we are evaluating the effectiveness of trying to apply his system in a low-cost community housing project, where people are being interviewed about their associations with space and if we can try and account for those in the system. Now, it turns out that this system of just giving everybody the same house isn't very effective, because many of the reasons that people aren't able to stay in housing on a long-term basis have a psychological root. So for may of us, if you are in a space, that feels like a place where you're safe. But that's not true for everyone. That's not true for many people who are homeless. They're homeless because actually being in an enclosed space makes them feel unsafe. It makes them feel danger. Perhaps they had some experience, some traumatic experience, in an enclosed space. So if we can begin to understand those associations, we can say, okay, well, as long as we can make this person feel like they can always escape, that they're never cornered—maybe put in an extra door, maybe create the layout of the space which always allows them a way out—then maybe it won't be so aversive to be in a space like this. So we don't yet know if this will work, but that's what we're looking at right now; we're evaluating whether or not this system allows people to be more effective.

Recorded on November 6, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

How tailoring living spaces to residents’ personalities may boost the success rate of community housing.

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