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Transitional healing

May 1, 2010
by Heather Boylan Drew, Interior Designer, IIDA Associate
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A unique design concept creates a base for mental wellness for returning combat soldiers

Figure 3. Discovery 1 (outdoor group therapy). An extension of the interior in a private outdoor area of therapeutic reflection

Supporting both zones are interconnected spaces and treatment offices. Each zone has its own receptionist and Discovery 2 also includes a licensed therapist specializing in children's issues and needs.

Creating a journey to wellness

The concept of serving the military family unit in a single yet all encompassing environment is based on the principle that healing environments are, in essence, people places and that we, as individuals, are inextricably interconnected.

Organizationally (within Connection and Discovery), the spaces invite each user to journey through a transitional healing process consisting of four elements (figure 4):

Figure 4. A journey toward healing. A: Passage; B: Moment (haptic connection); C: Segue; D: Locus.

  1. Passages provide secure, directed pathways that connect a series of reflective areas.

  2. Moments provide interludes where meditation, discovery, and insight may take place.

  3. Segues transition the user from one area to the next, perhaps marking a point in the journey.

  4. The series of passages, moments, and segues lead to a locus-an environment, room, or space where the work of focused healing takes place.

Each passage, segue, and moment offers a physical connection to the user. By touching, smelling, hearing, and seeing throughout and within the spaces, the haptic experience links the user to place and perhaps creates a connection to self. Sensory elements can serve as an extension of therapy and can be achieved through placement of architectural elements, such as a wall feature of carved and back lit brush tile by Braun or wall panels from Architectural Systems' Sculptured or Ecotextures collections. The hands, feet, eyes, and mind can be entertained by Jockimo's Liquid Lava Floor Tiles or Visual Reference Studio's Cypress Stool, multi-sensory seating made of thermochromatic material.

Of the more than two million soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 25 percent have been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, or anxiety. For many victims of PTSD, they feel isolated and no longer a full-fledged member of society, experiencing a loss of identity and sense of self.

Children and spouses may also face personal mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, anger, and aggression. The absence of their loved ones during these long periods makes it difficult to maintain family routine and, at times, meet personal needs. This creates a painful void that is eventually filled or denied so that life can continue. “For every day he was deployed in Iraq, it took that many for us as a family to readjust when he returned,” explained one military wife.

Human interaction and connection with nature is also important and is a universal desire. In a “transitional healing” environment, it is an integral component.

Like the sensorial elements, art, and play therapy inside, a sensory garden in the courtyard can be a method by which to contribute to the restoration of the mind. Movement inside and out is guided by integration of natural light and views of nature, with interludes along the way that contribute to spirit of place and spirit of belonging. They include artwork and sculptures, pools of water, a wall of inspirational quotes and poems, suspended mobiles, a stone water wall, and fireplace.

The form and movement within a “transitional healing” model embodies the facets of transition one experiences in finding a sense of self, family, and society, while linking the user to spaces that respond to demographic concerns, needs, and limitations. It focuses on the pivotal and active role of interiors as an extension of therapy, combining the functional requirements with the dynamic interplay of spatial relationships, materials and finishes, and connection to nature. It creates a personal journey for the user-a story that unfolds to uncover the next phase of life's mysteries and moments for the individual (soldier, spouse, and child), family, and community.

Heather Boylan Drew is an interior designer in Richmond, Virginia, and owner of bella DESIGNS studio. She is also an adjunct faculty member at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of the Arts Interior Design department. After more than 10 years in public relations, Heather completed her Master of Fine Arts in Interior Design from the Savannah College of Art and Design. This article is a summation of her thesis, inspired by her experiences as the daughter, sister, friend, and wife of war zone veterans.


  1. Gallagher Winifred.(1993). The Power of Place. New York:Poseidon Press.
  2. Dilani Alan, PhD.(2001). Psychosocially Supportive Design. World Hospitals and Health Services 37 (1), 20-24.
  3. Psychological Needs of Military Personnel And Their Families Are Increasing, Reports APA Task Force.(2007, February 25). American Psychological Association (APA) Press Release. Retrieved June 29, 2007 from

Behavioral Healthcare 2010 May;30(5):22-25