“I’m not a Barbie girl”: Spatial design reform in residential care

May 2024

Written by Belinda Lorek

The Create Voices in Action conference was held in Adelaide in March 2024. Three compelling voices at the conference belonged to Professor Suzie Attiwill and Create Consultants Hayley and Ella.  

The research team presented findings from their work: Developing spatial design know-how with and for young people living in residential out-of-home care. This piece of work was undertaken by the School of Architecture and Urban Design RMIT University together with Create Young Consultants.  

This pilot research project focused on exploring the impact of the immediate physical environment in residential care on young people’s well-being – psychologically, socially, and physically. This project aimed to identify and advocate for easy and cost-effective adjustments to immediately transform a residential care environment.   

Young people’s requests for furniture or aesthetic changes to a residential care house frequently involve the need for a lengthy process and justification. These requests are rarely progressed quickly in systems. In response to this system block and lag, this research team has identified quick and easy ways to improve the environment and therefore, young people’s overall satisfaction, belonging, sense of safety, and well-being.  

During their presentation, Create Consultant Hayley shared an experience of walking into a new residential care space and finding her bed prepared with a Barbie bedspread.   

“I’m not a Barbie girl, I was more of a Bratz girl”. 

Hayley said this fundamental misconception of who she was immediately set the tone for how she felt in that moment of anxious arrival. Hayley reflected that these details matter for young people. 

 

Ideas to improve spatial design 

Quick and low-cost ideas and strategies that have emerged from the project to improve spatial design in residential care placements and in turn, impact young people’s well-being and feelings of safety include: 

 

  • All windows and doors should have locks that work 
  • All bedrooms should have a desk, regardless of if a young person is engaged currently in formal education 
  • There should be a space in rooms to display precious belongings 
  • Photo frames in the house should always contain actual photos of people who live there 
  • The house should draw on natural colour palettes 
  • A dining room table should provide a group space (with no unsightly tablecloth!) 
  • All property damage should be fixed immediately 
  • Each bedroom needs a locked space for valuables  
  • Couches can be placed up against the wall, to encourage feelings of safety 
  • Young people should pick their own linen that suits their personalities 
  • Artwork can be considerate of young people’s likes and dislikes, as opposed to generic and frequently seen art that is not personalised 

This project has also raised the issue of sight lines in spatial design. Consideration for lines of sight include: 

 

  • What does a young person see in the entry, following that very first step into a new residential care environment?  
  • What is the first visual impression – is it a workplace or a home?   
  • What can a young person see when they look through the doors or windows from inside and outside?  
  • Are the exits obvious for young people who may feel unsafe?  

These considerations are essential for creating spaces that are welcoming and promote privacy, safety and dignity. 

 

Home-like environments 

The other critical discussion raised by Professor Suzie Attiwill, Hayley and Ella was about the concept of “home-like environments” for residential care. They have bought a careful lens of consideration to this term that is commonly used in the sector. Their reflections included: 

 

  • Do all young people want the residential care house to feel “home-like”? 
  • What is “home-like”? This may be different for many people. 
  • For some young people, this phrase is not welcomed because “home-like” is not reassuring. 

 

One key take-away from the research: Services can make small adaptions that have a big impact for the young people that live in residential care. 

If you work in residential care, what’s one thing you can do this week to create a warmer, safer, more personalised spatial design with the young people who live there? 

 

For more information on Developing Spatial Design and Residential Care, read the report by Professor Suzie Attiwill.

You may be interested in: Residential care Youth participation

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