‘Reflections on our newly refurbished delivery hub in Manchester: The importance of ‘Physical spaces’ in a psychologically informed environment (PIE)’
22.07.2022: As I write this week’s PIE blog, as the lead for Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE), at the national youth homeless charity — Centrepoint, I am on a train back from Manchester where I have had the pleasure of attending the opening event for our refurbished delivery hub at Oldham Street. When I first joined Centrepoint, over 3 years ago now in May 2019, I was lucky to have time to visit all the services across the organisation, including Manchester. Whilst I was extremely impressed by the amazing support work that the staff teams were delivering to homeless young people in the city, if I am honest I was much less impressed by the building that they were operating out of at the time. There was a hole in the roof, which given the particularly high rainfall in Manchester (!) rendered a whole section of the building unusable and all the spaces for both staff and young people were tired, run down and somewhat depressing. Hardly a space to create ‘hope’ that a young person attending the service for help could #changethestory and move on from their experience of homelessness.
This was also the view reflected by some of the young people that were involved in the subsequent co-production working group to improve the space (c.f. https://drhelenmiles.medium.com/co-producing-the-physical-spaces-in-a-psychologically-informed-environment-changing-the-story-9fbb7c74bfb5?source=your_stories_page-------------------------------------). Specifically, they were extremely complimentary about the staff but reported that the building was not somewhere that they wanted to come to in order to get the support they needed. Consequently, I left that initial visit back in the summer of 2019 feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the scale of the task in turning that space in to a more ‘psychologically informed’ physical environment, in keeping with the principles of a psychologically informed environment or PIE that I had been employed to lead within the organisation.
However, fast-forward 3 years, and Oldham Street has been transformed! Due to the hard work of many different individuals, including our property and fundraising team(s), the building contractors, generous financial support from various donors and the public, and support as well as time from both staff, our pro bono designer Daniella from www.spacepositive.co.uk and the homeless young people involved in the co-production work, the building is changed beyond recognition. This has been a significant undertaking; particularly as much of the work occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought about additional challenges to the project timescale. Moreover, throughout this period, our staff in Manchester continued to offer services to homeless young people in Manchester, even whilst operating from ‘temporary accommodation’ themselves on the other side of the city.
Obviously, all of us like to live and work in as pleasant environment as possible, but why is the physical environment so important in a psychologically informed environment? As Keats et al (2012) note in their PIE Good Practice Guide (c.f. https://eprints.soton.ac.uk/340022/1/Good%2520practice%2520guide%2520-%2520%2520Psychologically%2520informed%2520services%2520for%2520homeless%2520people%2520.pdf) ‘designing and managing the social environment is central to developing a psychologically informed service. Thoughtful design, preferably one with service user input, based on thinking through the intentions behind a service, can result in useful changes in the way a building is used, and how it is valued by staff and clients’ (p.17). In particular, they emphasise ‘the need for welcoming, well decorated and well lit buildings, providing a safe environment within which vulnerable and often isolated people could turn their lives around and move away from the streets’ (Keats et al, 2012; p.18). This consideration of the physical environment is important because we all know first impressions count, and for an already marginalised group often feeling stigmatised and rejected by wider society, to enter a physical space that challenges this perception of them being worthless can be very affirming, positive and increase their willingness to engage with whatever services are on offer.
In other words, if your previous experiences have told you that you are not of worth or unimportant, arriving at a building to get support or help (often an anxiety provoking step in itself because of your fear of rejection or failure) that is shabby, run down or in poor condition can further reinforce these self-beliefs and decrease your motivation for change. However, arriving at a building that is welcoming and well looked after gives you the impression that you are of value and are equally worth the time and investment increasing your motivation for change. Similarly, for staff, working in the homeless sector can be challenging and difficult. Coming to work in a building that gives you additional stress because of its poor condition is something that does not help your motivation to remain in this job because you do not feel valued or appreciated by the organisation that employs you. Investment in the physical environment is therefore often viewed as investment in those that live, attend or work in a space and can improve staff retention and morale.
When considering the physical environment in a PIE, Keats et al (2012) argue that the principles of ‘evidence based design’ need to be considered. For example, there is plenty of research that highlights the importance of the physical environment on the individual, including evaluations of environmental interventions on psychological well-being (see www.healthdesign.org/ for further details). Codinhoto et al (2008) have defined a set of four factors in particular that have been found to influence health outcomes. These are (1) Ergonomics, including dimensions, shape and layout of the environment; (2) Fabrics and ambient factors, including materials, lighting, acoustics, temperature and humidity; (3) Art and aesthetics, including colour, design and art; and (4) Services, including maintenance and cleanliness. Therefore, when Oldham Street was being renovated these areas were held in mind, in order to develop a more psychologically informed physical space.
Specifically, careful consideration was given to the layout of the building, in order to both maximise space needed for staff (including the infill of previously wasted space in the atrium) but also to ensure that teams were able to work together more easily to increase collaborative and supportive working. Discussion around what was actually needed in the building (e.g. separate staff entrance, sufficient confidential 1:1 rooms, communal spaces for young people as well as meeting / training spaces for staff) was key as well as ensuring easy ongoing maintenance, safety and cleanliness. As noted again by Keats et al (2012; p.18) in the homeless sector ‘the safety of staff and clients is crucial, and providers should aim to achieve this through good design’. The right design can actually reduce risk incidents and create a more positive and safe space for all users.
Moreover, the interior design of the building was also important. Whilst the initial focus was on the building layout, it was important that we did not end up with a clinical looking ‘white box’. As a result, as noted above we worked alongside a wonderful interior designer with input from some of the homeless young people that used the service as well as the staff that worked in the service to create physical spaces that considered the importance of aesthetics. For example, the confidential 1:1 assessment rooms were all named and themed (e.g. forest room, mountain room) and decorated in different colours with vinyl transfers that were in keeping with the theme so that they were pleasant and welcoming. See below for examples:
In addition, communal spaces have been decorated with a mural and photographs completed by the homeless young people attending the service in conjunction with the local activities team. These projects did not only improve the physical spaces but actually served an important psychological function to those homeless young people who took part in them. For example, increasing their confidence, pride in themselves, mood, self-esteem and engagement / ownership of the physical spaces. Imagine for example how you might feel attending somewhere and seeing your work on display for others to see — I know that this would make me feel good about myself! For examples of this work — see below:
Lastly, consideration was also given in the Oldham Street refurbishment to the outside space. External spaces are often overlooked in a physical environment, but are particularly important because of the impact of connecting with nature on our psychological well-being (c.f. https://drhelenmiles.medium.com/being-at-one-with-nature-reflections-on-the-importance-of-nature-upon-our-psychological-7b7eb0d177aa?source=your_stories_page-------------------------------------). This was particularly challenging on this project due to the location of the building, right in the centre of the city off Piccadilly Gardens, thereby ensuring that was no external space available round the actual building’s footprint. Staff therefore had nowhere to go to take a few moments break or have lunch. As a result, they often reported eating their lunch at their desks, which is not ideal for psychological well-being, as it does not allow us time to decompress or process the various challenging or stressful day-to-day aspects of working in the homeless sector increasing the risk of staff burnout.
However, Oldham Street does have a roof! Luckily, one of our staff has a keen interest in gardening and with a relatively small amount of funding from the PIE Physical Environment Fund and some support from our volunteer team, a roof top well-being garden has been created (see picture below). It even has a canopy so it can be used all year round, bearing in mind the higher than average amount of rainfall that the city of Manchester experiences! I have to admit that this is now my favourite place in the whole building and the climb up several flights of stairs is worth it to reach this space with the views across the Manchester skyline and seats for staff to have a few moments to relax, recharge, think and socialise. I fully intend to make the most of this space in between reflective practice sessions when I am in Manchester in the future and look forward to seeing how the planting grows and fills out the space to create our very own ‘hanging gardens of Babylon’ in the future!
Overall, when reflecting on this project I am most impressed by the collaboration and co-production between many different stakeholders for this project as it highlights what is possible with regard to the physical environment in a PIE with will, determination and a concentration focus of resources. The Manchester Oldham Street building was a big challenge and I am proud to work for an organisation that did not shy away from this, but instead has been willing to make a significant investment in it, thereby investing also in the staff and homeless young people that use this physical space. I have no doubt that the psychological impact of this renovation will be immense, and this gives me hope that the importance of the physical environment in a PIE can continue to be highlighted moving forward throughout the organisation. For example, that other projects (e.g. our Planned Maintenance Programme starting soon to uplift our supported accommodation services or our continued PIE Physical Environment Fund just re-launched for this year) will be just as successful. When I reflect back over the past three years since I joined Centrepoint, there has been a significant shift in terms of the importance now placed on our physical environments. Of course, I have only been one voice of many arguing for this shift and to all my colleagues throughout the organisation I am sincerely grateful for your work upon and support of this key aspect of a PIE. Therefore, watch this (physical) space for what comes next…