Performance Driven, Poetically Crafted Architecture

Designing Wellness, Renewal and Refuge in Teen Spaces

September 2, 2021
by Magdalena Hebal

The teen years are a unique stage in life — and in spite of what parents of teens might see around the house, it’s not all funny TikTok dances and texting with friends. The transition from adolescence into adulthood can be riddled with anxiety, confusion, and distress; and while these issues were always present and the subject of substantial research, the social isolation created by the pandemic has exacerbated them to new heights. 

Students, educators, children, and especially teens are more stressed and overwhelmed than ever before. According to an article by the Pew Research Center in 2019, seven-in-ten teens today see anxiety and depression as major problems among their peers. The Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) followed with a study in 2021 illustrating that Mental health insurance claims for US teens roughly doubled early in the COVID-19 pandemic over the same period in 2019. 

It is becoming more and more clear that support of teen wellbeing is greatly needed — and we as architects have a unique role to play in how we design spaces and impact that important phase in life. 

Not unlike adults or young children, teens want to feel valued, accepted, and respected. What makes teens unique is that they are undergoing the natural development of becoming one’s “own person”; they are literally changing before our eyes. There is a greater need for social interaction, for independence, and a sense of belonging. In the article “Meeting the Needs of Teens” the PennState Extension claims that because teens are in this phase of tremendous social and emotional growth, they have a greater requirement of four basic human needs: Belonging, Power, Enjoyment and Independence. These are all factors of wellbeing which can be supported through the design of space. 

Teens need spaces where they can have control of their time, the freedom to decide what they are going to do and how they are going to spend that time. They need a space without too many rules or overbearing oversight, a space that they can activate and make their own. SNHA’s recent library renovation at the St. Charles Public Library in St. Charles, IL strove to address these issues in the design of a dedicated teen space for the library, and the design process offered several valuable insights around designing to meet teen wellness needs. 

Belonging 

The first step in this process was to create a dedicated space for teens. In the article “A Place of Their Own, Creating Spaces where Teens Can Thrive” American Libraries Magazine states that “cultivating a space in the library that teens can activate and own sends teens a strong signal they are valued and welcome.” The library already had space allocated to teens in their current library, but it was not well defined and did not have much privacy. In the library redesign the teens have their own room, away from other users and other children. They are removed enough that they can speak freely and be themselves, but not so far removed that there is no line of sight for adults working nearby. The Adult Services desk is right outside the Teen room where librarians are easily accessible and can keep an eye on the space. 

Power 

In that same article, ALM also states that “Space is power. The allotment of space in public buildings clearly illustrates which groups matter and which groups do not.” Edith Craig, the library director, while juggling the needs and demands of so many library user groups and organizations, made time to meet with the teen patrons themselves to gain understanding and input on the design of their new space. Teen ambassadors were given an active role in determining how their space would be experienced and it gave us, as designers, a greater understanding of their needs. This dialogue encouraged engagement, participation, and teen ownership. 

Enjoyment 

In our new plan, we located the Teen room on the second floor, under a portion of a new gable roof. We wanted to create something unique and awe-inspiring with this space as well as incorporate elements of biophilic design — an approach to architecture that seeks to connect building occupants more closely to nature. 

Studies have shown that biophilic design can reduce stress, improve cognitive function and creativity, and improve overall well-being. For the building’s interior design inspiration, we looked to the community’s Fox River, drawing upon the winding, sinuous nature of the river as well as the faceted nature of river rocks. There are faceted patterns throughout the library: a dramatic boulder-like floor pattern in the Youth Services Lobby and angular “houses” along the perimeter of Youth Services. For the teen space, the room’s angular shaped ceilings came from this idea of the prismatic nature of rocks. By shaping the room’s ceiling to mimic these prisms, we aimed to create a sense that one is within a group of stones. Acoustic wall panels mimic these prismatic shapes as does the carpet’s pattern. The room is also surrounded on two sides with low windows overlooking tree canopies, giving one the feeling of being in a treehouse. 

Independence 

Furniture is set up so that teens can freely manipulate their environment. The room includes a gaming area with a re-configurable sectional and lightweight bean bag gaming chairs. There is a computer table with library desktops and monitors plus plug-ins for laptop usage. The study tables, also prismatic in shape, have hidden casters for ease of moving these together or apart. Bar-height seating and tables were incorporated, which was a direct request from the teens themselves. And along one wall of the room we have provided a full size markerboard. The idea here is to provide a space for teens to be seen and heard — allow them to present their ideas, freely communicate, and be creative.

Supporting these needs and the wellbeing of teens through design is a powerful contribution we as architects can make to a community of end users in an important, fragile stage of life. Kids are like caterpillars and teens are in that special cocoon phase of blossoming…only teens don’t get to burrow away while they are doing so. They have to deal with hormonal changes on top of pandemics and social issues. And in this digital age, they have no respite from their problems — making spaces of refuge and renewal all the more important.

In an article from Time Health called “Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright” the author says “In my dozens of conversations with teens, parents, clinicians and school counselors across the country, there was a pervasive sense that being a teenager today is a draining full-time job that includes doing schoolwork, managing a social-media identity and fretting about career, climate change, sexism, racism — you name it.” The urgency to improve well-being is intensifying. The good news is that more and more educators and directors are paying attention. More libraries and schools are seeing that this matters. And, this gives us, the designers, the opportunity to better understand and create spaces that support wellbeing, ones that allow for communal and individual creation, create welcoming and inclusive spaces, provide flexibility within the environment and allow for sensory richness. Creating these distinct, wellness-enhancing spaces can be incredibly impactful, for teens and for society at large.