Janet Wiens

By Janet Wiens
WHRs design of the Signature Suites at Memorial Hermann Texas Medical Center blends hospitality design with healthcare needs in an elegant setting, earning the project a 2005 Design Excellence Award honorable mention fro


Healthcare is a very competitive field. Hospitals must attract the professionals of the highest caliber in order to deliver the finest care. Outstanding staffs help attract patients and research dollars. Facilities also factor into the equation. Staff members want efficient and pleasant work environments that enable them to deliver care in a setting that promotes healing. Patients, when they can choose their hospital, will typically opt for the one that has the best staff and facilities.

The new Signature Suites at the Memorial Hermann Texas Medical Center, Houston, TX, were designed with patient comfort and services in mind, and to compete with comparable facilities at neighboring institutions. Patients using the suites are non-critical and typically have stays of three to five days.

"The hospital wanted a space that offered a higher level of service," says Gail Burns, IIDA, AAHID, senior interior design for WHR Architects, Houston. "They envisioned that the suites would have a fine hotel quality much like The Peninsula in Chicago."

WHR has designed numerous projects for the hospital, including a 12-story patient tower that was completed in 1999. "We evaluated several scenarios for this project, and ultimately determined that renovating a portion of the original hospital was the best option," Burns says.

For budgetary and scheduling reasons the project was built in three phases, which was unusual given the project's size. "Hospitals can only have a limited number of beds down at a time, which coupled with budget considerations, required us to do this project in three phases," Burns states. "We had to order all furniture and materials at one time to ensure that the lots would match. For a small project it involved extensive coordination between our team and the contractor."

The project features 11 suites, eight of which can be combined in pairs to create four larger suites. Additional features include a concierge/security desk, a business office, conference room, library and a nurses' station.

"The goal for our design was to create a very classic space," says Sylvie Bucci, IIDA, WHR's other senior designer on the project. "We used references to the hospital's original building, which was constructed in 1925, as well as alluding to the patient tower that we designed. This was achieved through the incorporation of an 'X' motif in the carpet and furniture, high ceilings in the patient rooms, and the use of limestone in select areas."

A second goal was to avoid a "hospital look" for the space while still providing appropriate services and protection for patients. This
was accomplished largely through the specified furniture, lighting, flooring, wall coverings and artwork. By concealing medical and service equipment whenever possible the design team also made the space more hospitality rather than hospital in quality.

Bucci says that the neutral color palette creates a warm environment for patients, their families and visitors while also serving as a clean backdrop for the furniture and artwork used in the space. Neutral walls, marble accents and limestone blend with earthy tones of mossy green and beige throughout the area.

Patients and their families access the floor through a private entrance. At the concierge/security desk they check in and can also submit requests for spa services, or they can order tickets for community events or meals from local restaurants.

Patient suites feature a custom-designed sleeper sofa, a custom-designed console and nightstand, and coffee and end tables in cherry or maple. A built-in cabinet with hanging wardrobes on both ends provides ample storage space and has a TV, VCR, DVD, safe and refrigerator housed in its center section. The various woods used to construct the suite's furniture blend with the medium-figured anigre of the built-in cabinet to create an established and sophisticated look.

The headboard behind the patient bed is mounted to the wall, and the headwall conceals all hookups for medical gases. Each suite has a technology center on the patient side that includes a bedside computer, virtual keyboard, and a small mounted digital camera. Patients can access the Internet, radio stations, local and cable TV stations, hospital channels, and games and movies via the computer.

The bathrooms in the suites would be appropriate for any upscale hotel. The polished stone on the walls sparkles and is very easy to maintain, and the tumbled marble inset adds a touch of interest. The limestone floors have a honed finished for slip resistance, and are also easily maintained. The round mirror with a halogen lamp has a warm light that minimizes shadows, and is mounted on a plate glass mirror. Certain elements are concealed in the bathroom, as they are throughout the suites, to lessen the institutional feel. One example includes the access panels in the bathroom that hide the pipes for the commode and bed pan washers.

A library/open seating area offers patients, families and guests an additional space for visiting. It features a custom-designed storage unit for magazines and books constructed of rich wood with a stone countertop. All upholstery on the furniture is moisture resistant. The combination of ceiling, wall-mounted and floor lamps, which feature data and power ports, provide a soothing and appropriate mix of light sources.

The suites are high-end but are also designed to withstand wear and tear. The carpet tiles can be easily replaced as needed and have a pile height that accommodates stretcher and rolling cart traffic. The acoustical lay-in ceiling tiles help reduce noise, and their smooth surface reduces dust accumulation. The millwork in heavy-traffic areas is manufactured from wood-grain plastic laminate to withstand bumping while meeting aesthetic design standards.

Fluorescent light is the main source in the suites. The team selected lights of 2700k in most areas to create a more yellow or incandescent appearance; 3500k exam lights are installed above patient beds. MR16s illuminate artwork, and were used sparingly. Other lighting elements include surface-mounted pendants and wall sconces.

The end result earned the project a 2005 Design Excellence Award honorable mention from the IIDA/Texas-Oklahoma chapter, with judges noting the unique approach and execution of the overall design.

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