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As the sun sets over the medical campus of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the glass panes and colored panels of the Benjamin Russell Hospital for Children (BRHFC) come to life, sparkling in a way that the surrounding brick buildings cannot.
Whether seen from afar—perhaps from the new Railroad Park up on 17th Street—or from one of the several curvilinear bridges that connect the building with the rest of its neighbors, the BRHFC’s colorful exterior represents new hope for families who have had very little of it lately.
Designed by HKS in partnership with architectural firm Giattina Aycock Studio, the BRHFC maintains a sharp focus on light and color within its glass-walled spaces. From the giant skylights in the lobby to the clerestories found in patient bathrooms to the mirror
chips in the building’s terrazzo flooring, light is harnessed at every opportunity and quickly put to work, distracting children and uplifting the spirits of everyone else.
For Doug Compton, AIA, principal and senior designer with HKS, the decision to incorporate copious amounts of glass into the design was a no-brainer for reasons of patient and family well-being (“I’m a firm believer in the notion of natural light and views to the outside as a great stress reliever,” he says), but it also helps differentiate the 12-story building from the rest of the UAB campus and ties it to the growing downtown area just a few blocks north.
“This was kind of a major expansion of their facility, and they felt that they needed to begin to establish their own identity,” he says.
On that count, the owners and design teams have succeeded completely. The hospital’s positioning as a new standard of pediatric care is found in every surprise the building has to offer; everything from the Guy Kemper-designed art glass wall in the motor lobby to the building’s impressive views of Red Mountain, a local Birmingham landmark, speak to the space’s ability to transform a patient’s experience. But its identity is also formed in the quieter, day-to-day spaces, where the real work of healing is done.
Designed around the concept of family-centered care, every patient room in the BRHFC features a sleeper sofa, large wardrobe and small safe for valuables, as well as a complete patient education and entertainment system. Families are invited to make use of kitchens, complete with refrigerator, microwave and ice machine; laundry rooms; and waiting areas at the end of hallways that provide sweeping views of the city. NICU floors include shower facilities, while rooming-in accommodations give the parents of newborns the opportunity to practice at-home care routines before discharge.
Other amenities, like family resource centers with computers, a playful Room of Magic theater and meditation spaces add to the hospital’s already sterling reputation, but it’s the LEED Silver certification that truly sets it apart from its peers in the state. The first healthcare facility in Alabama to be certified under the rating system, the BRHFC promises to use less energy, require less maintenance and last longer. Local and eco-friendly materials,
such as the rubber flooring in patient corridors, have been specified as often as possible, while the building’s rooftop gardens—planted with native sedum—provide insulation and oxygenation.
WATCH: Take a video tour through the new Benjamin Russell Hospital for Children in the I&S Media Center.
According to Compton, the building’s orientation, almost due north and south, was a significant help in achieving Silver, but it also came from a concerted effort on the part of the building team to be efficient in all phases of the project. “Achieving the LEED certification started at the beginning of construction,” he says simply. “We tried to use materials that made sense.”
Spanning 760,000 square feet and costing $400 million, the BRHFC—technically an addition to the existing Children’s of Alabama hospital across the street—is the largest single medical facility expansion project in the history of the state. Upon opening its doors in 2012, Children’s became the third-largest pediatric hospital in the United States (as measured by square footage).
That means that the hospital is able to serve more patients—it is now licensed for 332 beds plus 48 neonatal intensive care bassinets—but it also means more walking. Considering the incredible size of the building, it also means a greater risk of getting completely lost. Designers tackled that challenge from the very beginning.
“When you have a building this big … it’s very confusing. You have to differentiate the floors when you get off the elevator, but you also have to differentiate the wings,” says Iris Dates, IIDA, EDAC, LEED AP, vice president and director of design for healthcare interiors for HKS. “So we spent a lot of time on it, with each floor having a certain color, having a certain identity, but still relating to each other.”
Like many other children’s hospitals around the country, the BRHFC uses a themed wayfinding system to help guide patients—although Dates prefers “concept” over theme. One of the tower’s donors, Birmingham’s own Monday Morning Quarterback Club, inspired the choice of a sports concept for each floor; in the other tower, an animal concept holds court. And while it’s easy to go overboard with these types of design elements, HKS consistently opted to take a more sophisticated approach to each floor of the hospital.
“As we were designing it, we all kept talking to each other about the fact that this hospital has to appeal to a 2-year-old girl, but it also has to appeal to an 18-year-old boy—and their family,” Dates adds. “Any time we made a design decision, we put it through that filter.”
Other innovative ideas include a blue patient “journey” pattern that curves through the building’s flooring, directing foot traffic to and from entrances, elevators and patient care areas. The hospital owners also greenlit an ambitious art program that incorporates more than 120 original works by Alabama artists to help with wayfinding, but also to provide positive distractions for those who need them.
“The owner and Hatcher Design went all over Alabama looking for local artists, and they found so much fabulous art,” Dates says. “When you hear ‘local artists’ you think, uh oh, it might be a little crafty, but they had some of the best art I’ve ever seen in my life.”
And perhaps it’s those kinds of touches that stand as the ultimate measure of Children’s identity.
It’s apparent that the owners have spared no expense and the designers have cut no corners in the effort to create a place where families can regain a little hope. Those shimmering glass facades, standing proud in the Birmingham skyline, continue to broadcast that message each night.