New YSS youth recovery campus embeds trauma-informed design in its walls

Homes are a central component of the residential addiction treatment YSS provides to Iowa youths. Two adapted houses in Ames have served as treatment facilities to help youths feel welcomed and comfortable while they recover.

YSS CEO Andrew Allen said the organization determined about five years ago that the adapted homes weren’t able to accommodate all the needs of a treatment facility and started looking into creating the same homelike feel in a new space.

“The vision is we’re creating a space where people will drive up onto it, they’ll traverse a nature-based drive in and they’ll get to the campus and they’ll exhale and say, ‘I think it’s gonna be OK,’” Allen said.

The new $13 million, 70-bed youth recovery campus, which is set to open in fall 2023, will provide residential addiction treatment for youths ages 12-17 and for young adults ages 18-24. A crisis stabilization and emergency shelter program will be offered as well.

YSS selected a 53-acre parcel of prairie in Cambridge, about 15 minutes southeast of Ames, so the campus is embedded in nature but close enough to metro areas to be accessible to its workforce and have youths in treatment engage with nearby communities.

As YSS works to support youths through the current mental health and addiction crises, it has embarked on this project after five years of gathering funding and momentum — but not alone.

RDG Planning and Design is a design partner for the new campus, as are an Iowa State University professor and her students who have worked with YSS youths over two semesters designing a campus that serves their needs during a vulnerable time.

Allen met associate professor of landscape architecture Julie Stevens by chance through a personal donation she and her husband made to YSS, which led to the first of many conversations about a new practice in design fields called trauma-informed environmental design.

Stevens said it is a way of designing spaces that requires a “keen understanding of the people you’re working with” and consideration of what the people using the space need from an environment to feel supported. She has been studying this new design branch with a multidisciplinary research team, but said no one is an expert yet and it will take more time and data to build a stronger understanding of the field.

“The center of our framework is the most vulnerable youth. You can imagine a youth with complex things going on in their life. They’ve got tough things going on at home, they’re coming here because they need some assistance in their addiction recovery. … They are the center of our focus. That doesn’t mean that everybody else around them isn’t important, but our design focuses on them first,” Stevens said.

Developing an understanding of youths and how to best design nature-based spaces for them was going on the whole time, but Stevens’ first step was taking groups to see how they interacted with an outdoor environment and what they liked most.

“Some of them are very comfortable and they want to go tramp through the creeks and climb trees and hang out in nature, and some of them see a flying insect and they just about come unglued,” she said. “And all of that’s OK, it’s just really important that we provide opportunities where they can engage in ways that they’re comfortable.”

YSS staff noted that observing how youths respond to outdoor activities, like how they cross a creek, could be useful in assessments of risk-taking and other behaviors.

Some of the design process has been in a studio on the Iowa State campus where Stevens and her students hosted groups of YSS youths and asked them to do activities like writing down everything they do in a day while in treatment and place it on a map of the campus to show where they’d feel most comfortable completing that task.

Stevens said it took making and correcting mistakes and building relationships with the youths along the way to start understanding their experiences.

“This is the thing that’s hard about design because we often don’t take enough time for these parts of the design process,” she said. “I bet we engaged the kids six or seven times before I really understood what their day was like, and I won’t claim to understand it now. I haven’t been in their shoes.”

To provide guidance during designing there were overall goals for the spaces on campus: that they support nurturing relationships, provide opportunities to practice self- and co-regulation skills, offer safe but immediate access to an interaction with nature, and provide opportunities to practice good decision-making skills and have ownership over part of the day.

After the campus opens next year, Stevens will conduct post-occupancy evaluations to get feedback from youths, parents and caregivers and see how the effectiveness of YSS programs changes between facilities.

Throughout the project so far, YSS has taken a larger interest in trauma-informed care. Stevens sat in on the evaluations of the architecture firms for the project to help find one that aligned with the mission of the campus.

Allen said he accepted having the construction a few weeks behind schedule in order to get the design right because “this is a once in a lifetime project for the state of Iowa and for YSS, for sure, and I just don’t want to settle. I don’t want to compromise.”

Over the next year he also said YSS is looking to invest in trauma-informed training so everyone who works at the recovery campus or one of the six other YSS locations “is operating in a way that is trauma-informed.”

With the expectation that addiction treatment will continue as a significant need among youths, he said being trauma-informed is a necessary investment.

“If you’re going to build a new facility and spend $15-$20 million to do it, it makes sense to do everything that you can to be as trauma-informed and ensure not only that the kids are safe, but that the treatment is as effective as it can be,” Allen said.

He called the project a win for YSS, the youths and the community because together they will in turn be able to help more people.

Trauma-informed design “starts with understanding who it is that you’re serving and it starts by giving young people a voice in the process,” he said. “There’s just nothing I’d rather invest in than ensuring that young people are heard and that they feel engaged and that they feel valued such that they get inspired to do this more often.”