What is Empathic Interior Design?

 When the words Empathic Interior Design first surfaced in my consciousness, I immediately wondered, “What is this–does it exist?”

Of course I went straight to Google, and within moments I came across a short article that showcased a video from the Cleveland Clinic entitled “Empathy.” The article, “A Lesson in Empathy,” was written by Tim Brown, CEO at IDEO and posted on LinkedIn. You can read it here:


“Empathy is at the heart of design,” Tim Brown writes. “Without the understanding of what others see, feel, and experience, design is a pointless task.”

Take a moment to watch the video above, and you’ll know what he’s talking about. You might want to grab a tissue, though…

This video “reveals the true scale and complexity of the challenge of understanding a complex social situation in order to design a system that supports many and various needs,” Brown writes. He continues to question how a hospital facility can be better designed to support these needs.

While Brown’s questions are geared towards the healthcare industry, what I wanted to know was how to integrate Empathic Design within the home.

I can’t help but wonder what the patients in that hospital are returning home to.

Not only do they need support while they are within the walls of that facility, they need it (perhaps more so) when they return home to a place that does not offer a doctor, nurse, social worker, or psychologist as a primary means of emotional, physical, and psychological support.

This thought led to the awareness that families are complex social situations, too…

In fact, in this day and age, I can’t think of a situation that is more so. Think of how many families are comprised of step-parents, step-siblings, foster kids, adoptees, and/or members with life-altering disabilities.

Not to mention the obvious, each member of our family has a different personality and views the world in a different way.

Add to that a plethora of different life experiences each person has throughout the day and all the various ways they react differently to those experiences. Plus, each parent comes from a different family (and sometimes culture) in which they were raised with differing values and ideals.

Combine all of this under one roof and it’s no wonder so many families suffer from stress and emotional distancing.

To demonstrate this complexity, I’ll describe the differences in my family as an example:

I am married to my second husband, Francisco, who is in the process of getting his Green Card. For seven years we’ve been limited in many ways because of his immigration status, preventing us from pursuing simple things like loans, or having the ability to sell our house and move to a different location. Not to mention all the difficulties we’ve had with him being let go from various jobs and limited in employment options. Right now we are fortunate that he’s able to work as a subcontractor—although that often means 12+ hour workdays and exhaustion when he walks through the door. Come October 2014 he’s beyond ecstatic that he will be able to return to his home in Mexico to see his family for the first time in eleven years.

When I see our house through his eyes, I have to wonder if he feels displaced, living so far away from his culture and geographic location of birth–not to mention the loneliness he must feel for his family.

I also have permanent placement of my teenage son, Riley, who is a 15 year old sophomore in high school, excited to get his drivers license this summer. I can see his anticipation for the moment he gets his license and the independence he craves. He used to go to his father’s house every other weekend and on Wednesday nights before his father made some poor choices that nearly cost him his life—therefore Riley has had to deal with living a split life between two very different homes (his father was also injured in Iraq and had to have his left leg amputated below the knee in July 2006, which resulted in many changes for everyone involved). During the summer Riley typically works at his grandfather’s shop learning the trade of a welder and mechanic. In his spare time goes kayaking and hunting with his girlfriend.

I try to picture how he sees our home. I know Riley wishes we lived in the country, that there were more outdoor things for him to do. He’d rather be at his girlfriends house fixing animal pens, loading the wood burner, or repairing a tractor. He seems to have outgrown our little home in town, so making it feel like a place he wants to be has become a challenge.

Then there’s my daughter Mia who is seven and in 1st grade, eight years younger than her brother. Because she’s the youngest in a house of busy “adults”—she’s often desperate for attention and looking for anyone who is willing to play her “kid” games. She’s highly sensitive to noise and any clothing or environments that make her uncomfortable. Her blankets have to be soft, her pillow nice and puffy and facing just the right way. Yet she will destroy the whole house in seconds with the mountains of paper, crayons, glue sticks, markers, scissors, and craft supplies she collects in substantial quantities.

I struggle each day to keep her busy mind occupied amidst my endless efforts to control her clutter, but I know to her, every inch of this house is her home. She may want to move out into the country too, just so she can have more animals, but every time she thinks of it she’s saddened. She doesn’t want to lose the playhouse and slide we built in the basement, nor does she want to leave her friends behind. Our quiet little neighborhood houses 6 of her school friends, and she’s old enough now to walk to their houses. Plus, our door is always open to them when they take the wrong bus home instead of to the sitters, or when their parents are busy at work.

We’ve become a support system for them, too. And I must admit–it feels good to have so much life flowing through our home.

Then there’s me: a highly educated stay-at-home mom, whose last business fell apart after I suffered a herniated disc in my lower back brought on by massive amounts of stress, the grief over losing my mother to suicide, and years of suffering from fibromyalgia. Each day I make an attempt to pursue one of my many ambitions, to create amazing things, and to keep everyone in our family in harmonious co-existence, but I often fail due to the chaotic environment of our house and my overwhelming need to have space and time to myself.

The more we work on creating light and space within our home, though, the more relaxed I feel. It’s been a journey for sure. I know without a doubt that each phase of our Compassionate Home Renovation has helped me heal from the traumas I’ve experienced. Where once I could think of nothing but running away from this town, I’m starting to feel at peace here.

And we can’t forget the dogs who often get overlooked in the chaos. Their greatest desires revolve around a hopeful pat on the head, a good dinner, and a nice long walk. They are not big fans of noise and chaos, either, and seem to like the days we spend alone together with the sound of the furnace kicking in and my hands clicking away at the keyboard in winter.

Well, that’s the run down on my complex social situation—otherwise known as my family 🙂

I can’t tell you how many times I feel like I’ve failed miserably in my efforts to hold everyone together—but I keep trying. Typically my success comes when I enter every situation with empathy. I’ll be the first to admit, though, this is not always an easy approach—nor is it always my first approach. (I’m still trying to nix my typical gut reaction of impatience and frustration!)

Everyone has some version of this type of scenario. There are split families, multi-cultural families, extended members living under the same roof, people with disabilities and chronic, life-threatening illnesses. The list can go on…

These variables make our homes some of the most complex social situations we will ever have to navigate!

Which leads me to the question that is at the core of The Compassionate Home:

How do we design a home that supports everyone’s mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual needs?

The answer to that would be to implement Empathic Design strategies, which is why I developed the Empathic Design Assessment aspect of my services. Together, I sit down with you and your family and we determine what is currently working well for everyone in your home and identify the areas that cause friction between family members. I interview each member, and work on building a vision of what they need the most right now at this point in their development.

Maybe it’s a little more space, or a haven all their own. Maybe it’s a better living room, where everyone has a comfy spot on the couch to get together for movie night. Perhaps dad needs an office where he can shut the door for a few hours, and mom needs a bathtub to relax in after work.

Sometimes the answer may be a full blown renovation, other times a change of color or furnishings make all the difference in the world. The point is, each family is unique in what they need to feel safe and comfortable, and it makes me happy to see their eyes light up in joy when they see the change.

To live a moment as one of the other members of your family—to see life through their eyes, to experience the sensation of home through their senses, to know their particular needs, wants, and desires—what they struggle with and what lights them on fire…

How would you change the space you live in based on those varying needs?

~ Darcey

Darcey Rojas is the founder of The Compassionate Home. She is a Holistic Designer, Certified Design Psychology Coach, and Green Design Center Trade Partner dedicated to creating positive home environments that heal mind, body, and soul, strengthen family relationships, and nurture our true potential. Her approach to conscious home and lifestyle design involves designing spaces that meet our needs, encourage good habits, bring us closer to our loved ones, and support our health and wellbeing on a mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual level.

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