21 April 2021

Interior Design Student’s Research on Homelessness Gains Entry to International Design Conference

Senior student’s findings reiterate the need for house designs that foster sense of belonging among occupants

Research conducted by VCUarts Qatar student Aia Zaina has been accepted for the Environment Design Research Association EDRA52 conference to be held in Detroit, US, in May this year.

Her thesis titled ‘Prioritizing Place for a Fuller Understanding of Homelessness’, highlights the need for further understanding into homeless shelters, and explores the problem of homelessness as one that goes beyond rooflessness.

For her research, the VCUarts Qatar Interior Design senior student studied existing dwellings for the homeless around the globe, and gathered information to show that architects, interior designers, built environment experts, and policy makers need to focus on dwelling designs that foster emotional connectivity, a sense of belonging, and identity, among occupants.

“Of late I’ve seen how there is a stigma to stay away from, and not interact with, homeless people, as they are perceived to be a danger to themselves and others,” Zaina says. “And, I’ve observed how this attitude has affected governmental and societal efforts to include and reintegrate the homeless into the community.

“For that reason, when my professors at VCUarts Qatar encouraged our class to research designs that address real-world societal problems, I felt I wanted to investigate how such attitudes manifest in the manner in which homes or dwellings are being designed for the homeless, and what, if any, is the psychological impact on the inhabitants who occupy them. I also saw it as a chance for me to go beyond creating spaces and voids, and think about designs that build a sense of community.”

Zaina says her professors encouraged her to submit her thesis to the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA), an international, interdisciplinary organization founded in 1968 by design professionals, social scientists, students, educators, and facility managers with the purpose of advancing environmental design research, improving understanding of the interrelationships between people, their built and natural surroundings, and helping to create environments responsive to human needs.

As part of her investigations, Zaina studied existing models in Canada, the US, and Australia. Additionally, she conducted in-depth interviews with those directly involved with the homeless or who were managing homeless shelters in Australia.

“I had detailed – and often frank – discussions with managers and social workers involved with homeless shelters or communities in Australia,” says the QF partner university Class of 2021 student. “A common shared response from all of them was the need to cater to not only the physical, but also the psychological wellbeing of the homeless – which most dwellings lacked.”

As a Palestinian who spend most of her childhood in Australia, Zaina says that she was familiar with the topics of displacement and homelessness. Yet, according to her, her research had a few surprises in store for her.

“It dawned on me that while providing shelter for the homeless is crucial, the physical designs of most shelters are born out of industrialized mass-manufacturing concepts, without any consideration for local contexts and individual needs,” explains the interior design student.

“Very few of such physical structures built for long-term use by the homeless, are designed to foster a sense of emotional connection between the inhabitants and the community. This in turn induces a feeling of detachment, aimlessness and exclusion amongst most occupants.”

In her research, Zaina puts forward a design that promotes inclusion among the homeless – people who, irrespective of nationality, ethnicity, color or culture, are left without roofs over their heads due to their personal, social or political circumstances.

“My design permits occupants to engage with their built environment, allowing them to foster their identity and individuality while retaining the memories of their past experiences,” she says. “It allows the homeless to acquire knowledge and skill sets to make a living by letting them bond with place, nature, context, and people. This in turn, helps occupants to live with a greater sense of purpose, and give back to society.”

Zaina’s research couldn’t be timelier; a UN report issued in 2020 estimates that there are 1.6 billion people worldwide, who live in inadequate housing conditions, with about 15 million forcefully evicted every year. And, the 58th session of the UN Commission for Social Development held the same year made history by adopting the text of the first United Nations resolution on homelessness. 

The WHO’s stance on the aim of housing – healthy housing is shelter that supports a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being; healthy housing provides a feeling of home, including a sense of belonging, security and privacy – further validates and strengthens Zaina’s thesis’ findings.

“A home – and sense of belonging to it – are core human rights to living,” Zaina points out. “Taken from this perspective, it is vital to prioritize a place for the homeless that goes beyond four walls and a roof, and is driven by human-place bonding, attachment, and place meaning.”

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Aia Zaina's designs are aimed at helping occupants emotionally connect with the place they live in.

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