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Health-Giving Design

Healthcare clients are enlisting interior designers to help create safe, comforting places for their patients. Here’s how you can help.

By James Williamson, IIDA, LEED AP

Healthcare clients are enlisting interior designers to help create safe, comforting places for their patients. Here’s how you can help.

No one can predict the future, but we’re all interested in speculating on what it will be like. We have reached a consensus that healthcare design—far from following a trend—is actually leading the way in design. It’s no secret that innovative healthcare facilities are in higher demand than ever before. According to recent design firm statistics for 2013, the third market sector in construction fees by project type is healthcare/assisted living. Firm revenues can also be divided among building types nationwide, with 17 percent coming from the design of healthcare facilities.

Rejecting the bland and sterile hospital clichés, modern healing facilities are opting to enlist the help of interior designers to instill cutting-edge technology, comfort and style in their environments. In today’s project landscape, the integral members of the design team aren’t just designers and interior architects—they have expanded to include facility managers and hospital staff, and they approach each project from a patient and staff-centered point of view.

One of the biggest factors affecting the next 10 years of healthcare design will be the rapid emergence of new technologies. Predictive health—keeping people well instead of treating them only when they’re sick—is now supported through technology. We’re also seeing the advancement of nanotechnology, and more use of telemedicine and home monitoring equipment to observe and treat patients, including “do-it-yourself” diagnostic apps for smartphones and tablets. Interior spaces will have to react to these technological advances, such as through the use of accessible, interactive touchscreen sensor monitors.

And while the healthcare industry has traditionally placed a premium on performance over aesthetic considerations, we now see the tide turning as evidence-based and generative design have become staples in many healthcare facilities. For example, the recently-opened Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia (profiled in the November 2012 issue of I&S) incorporates evidence-based design by embracing the therapeutic benefits of nature, which underpins the overall design concept. The hospital’s uplifting interior—through window accessibility, immersive indoor aquariums and interactive video screens—maintains positive moods among healthcare workers and patients alike with naturally lit public spaces. PageBreak

Of course, functionality is still as vital a concern as ever, as the current flu epidemic illustrates. Just as healthcare providers diligently immunize patients and constantly evaluate the cleanliness of their facilities, the design of products used in healthcare must also adapt to our ever-changing and ever-germy world. Recent studies have found that at any given time in a healthcare facility, 1 in 20 patients will contract a hospital-acquired infection (HAI).

What does this mean for the interior designer? Our social awareness and education play significant roles in healthcare design for short- and long-term projects. We can create environments that promote comfort and healing, but we can also help prevent falls, medical errors and HAIs; therefore, it is important for us to select appropriate products and materials for health-giving interior spaces. A designer’s tool in the healthcare field is his or her knowledge of current products and the emerging technologies within the industry—but like any tool, it needs to be properly maintained to be effective.

READ: I&S looks inside the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne, Australia.

A case in point: Toward the end of 2012, several design publications began reporting on a new class of antimicrobial copper surfaces. These surfaces are the only such class of materials registered with the Environmental Protection Agency to continuously kill more than 99.9 percent of certain disease-causing bacteria within two hours. Since that discovery, manufacturers have introduced a variety of building products, including railings, door hardware and fixtures, all made with antimicrobial copper. Designers and interior architects have the ability to specify these materials, and with the proper knowledge, can play a leading role in making hospitals and other healthcare spaces safer for patients.

Each year, healthcare design tradeshows and competitions enjoy increased attention from design and facilities professionals, as well as healthcare providers. More opportunities are appearing on the scene every year, it seems, inviting designers to increase their knowledge and step into a role of thought leadership in the field of healthcare design and construction. PageBreak

To further facilitate communication and development in this growing, vital sector, IIDA hosts a variety of competitions that specialize in healthcare design, including the annual IIDA Healthcare Interior Design competition and the recent IIDA Global Excellence Awards (GEA).

For 2012, the GEA Best of Competition prize was awarded to Billard Leece Partnership and Bates Smart for their design for the Royal Children’s Hospital. Among the other notable entrants in the healthcare category was the team from Beige Design, which received an honorable mention for their work on the Neo Derm Group project.

The Neo Derm project is an example of how white and lime colors can help recreate brighter-lit interiors. Beige Design used a clean, high-gloss paint treatment to enhance and emphasize the young but rejuvenated skin-care center brand. Reflective mirror designs make the central environment look bigger. High-gloss painted wall panels maintain hygiene while also building a sense of continuity for the visitors and patients. The seating, composed of fabric sofas, is designed with rounded ends to create a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere.

As a basic concept, the purpose of a healthcare facility is to deliver care to those who need it. So while the space needs to reflect that concept, the design also should be about care—the care and respect of the people that come through that facility. More than ever, there are important healthcare design initiatives and programs aimed at keeping practitioners updated in this constantly expanding field. Clearly, healthcare design is an active and engaged segment of our profession and IIDA is proud to collaborate with leaders in this sector to provide quality resources for designers. Whether you are new to the healthcare design industry or an experienced veteran, there’s something for you in the Healthcare Online CEUs page, located at


IIDA International President James Williamson, IIDA, LEED AP is a practicing interior designer and principal at Gensler in its Washington, D.C. office. You can reach IIDA at (312) 467-1950 or at