Encourage Culturally Sensitive Homes

Supporting the creation of culturally sensitive homes and communities acknowledges the many ways by which people live their lives and create meaning. Families can vary in their size and composition and people often cook, eat, dress, pray, socialize, speak, etc. differently. These diverse ways of living can be the result of, among others:

  • Ethnic and national backgrounds
  • Religion
  • Geography (urban/rural)
  • Income
  • Age
  • Ability, and
  • Circumstances, such as experiencing homelessness

Often times, these factors intersect. For example, people of color may also face poverty and live in financially stressed communities. Living in homes that do not support diverse cultural traditions and practices can diminish people’s ability to live connected and healthy lives. Maintenance problems can put pressure on landlord/tenant relationships, setting in motion processes that can lead to marginalization and loss of connectedness. Overall, cultural differences in how people live can have implications for health and well-being as well as the state’s ability to attract and retain a diverse population, a crucial element of economic development.

What is a Culturally Sensitive Design?

Culturally Sensitive Design (CSD) is design that is flexible and adaptable to respond to diverse ways of living and being in the world. CSD is about inclusion, not exclusion. This idea is relevant to the continuum of design settings, from home interiors to community planning:

  • Home: A home is an important part of a person’s well-being. The home’s value must be protected for economic stability. Cultural sensitivity in housing refers to designs that allow for easy and low cost modifications to accommodate diverse ways of living. This could mean designing a kitchen so that it can be used as an open or closed space with a modification that does not require expensive remodeling, such as moving plumbing. In parallel, such designs enable occupants to partake in different activities while protecting their safety, health, and well-being. For example, materials in bathrooms that can withstand moisture and accommodate excess water splashing from religious washing rituals or simply from bathing children.
  • Communities: Home is more than housing. In culturally sensitive communities, everyone should feel included and comfortable to use public and private spaces such as parks, museums, libraries, schools, government buildings, retail establishments, etc. Communities that celebrate diversity, recognize the opportunities that arise when people from diverse backgrounds are committed to an area and a region. In a community/public space, this could mean including signage in different languages and providing gathering areas that bring people together and allow for connections to form and stereotypes to break.

Why is Culturally Sensitive Design important in housing?

Housing characteristics, such as ventilation systems, window types, spatial layouts, and material selections can impact residents’ ability to practice traditions that foster health and well-being:

  • Some traditional ethnic cooking requires oils and spices that can overtake the home if adequate ventilation is not provided and the kitchen is open to the rest of the house. Food is more than nourishment—it is about connections to language, religion, family, history, etc., which are important to a person's health and well-being.
  • Families can include extended family members and the number of people in a home can average 8-10. The amount of daily cooking required in such scenarios can again result in steam and odors permeating spaces when ventilation is not appropriate.
  • Gatherings to celebrate events such as the birth of a child or to support a family when someone is ill can often range from 30-200 people. When large gatherings take place in a home, the amount of cooking increases. As typical stovetops cannot handle oversize pots, families may find themselves using the basement as a cooking area. Cooking with propane gas however, is neither safe nor comfortable.
  • Religious needs can also have implications for how spaces are used. Most apartments have kitchens that are open to other spaces in the home, including the living areas. Cooking in open kitchens can be uncomfortable and dangerous when a veiled Muslim woman has to be covered to cook in the presence of male visitors.
  • Washing their feet before they pray can be difficult for Muslim elders who lack access to an easy-to-get-to shower with a movable shower head. Water splashing on walls and the floor can lead to mold and moisture as well as maintenance concerns if the finishes are not suitable.

Designers and planners who are cognizant of diverse uses of home spaces can implement culturally sensitive design solutions.

Examples of What Makes a Culturally Sensitive Home Design

The following are some examples of what flexibility and adaptability can mean in culturally sensitive housing.

Social areas
  • Accommodate sitting for multiple people
  • Allow for entertainment such as television viewing
  • Can double as sleeping areas
  • Can be adaptable to be both open and closed
  • Include multiple cooking stations allowing for more than one cook
  • Include both mechanical and natural ventilation
  • Ensure spaces for storage of large and small cooking utensils and appliances
  • Ensure spaces for storage of bulk foods and fresh foods
Dining areas
  • Ensure ease of access for daily eating
  • Can flexibly accommodate small or large numbers of people for special events and gatherings
  • Accommodate single bed and desk as well as two beds
  • Provide acoustic privacy from other rooms
  • Provide privacy from public spaces of the home
  • If a two-story home, bedroom on main level
  • Compartmentalized so they can be used by multiple people at one time
  • Provide privacy from public/social areas of the home
  • Feature materials that are durable and can withstand moisture
  • Include mechanical ventilation

Economic and Environmental Impacts of Culturally Sensitive Housing

Because of their emphasis on diversity, adaptability, and flexibility, culturally sensitive housing designs have economic and environmental benefits. Immigrants for example, have collectively added $3.7 trillion to the U.S. housing wealth and are instrumental to Minnesota’s economic and cultural vitality. Designs that are flexible and adaptable can have a greater appeal to a larger market share, can be occupied for longer periods of time, and can minimize environmentally and financially costly renovations, conserving resources in the process.

With housing choices that respond to diverse ways of living and inclusive communities, Minnesota can be more attractive to a broader segment of the population, strengthening the region’s cultural and economic vitality and contributing to Minnesota’s global competitiveness. Furthermore, although Minnesota is one of the healthiest states in the nation, it has some of the greatest disparities in health status and incidence of chronic disease between populations of color and whites. Occurrences of physical health concerns, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, as well as mental health inequalities, abound among minority and immigrant groups. By supporting diverse ways of living and encouraging healthy cooking and eating practices, culturally sensitive designs can play a role in alleviating some of these disparities.

Related Case Studies

Culturally Sensitive Design

A “before” and “after” scheme is used to illustrate how culturally sensitive design can be implemented without necessarily costing more...