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Passport to Recovery

Tsoi/Kobus & Associates’ design for the new University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital turns the recovery process into a virtual safari with the help of a colorful palette and 15 storytelling friends.

10/01/2011 By Adam Moore



Whether one is standing in the parking lot and taking in the building’s vibrant, multi-colored shell or standing in the hallways, learning about elephants while surrounded by the savannah, it’s obvious that the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital is a different kind of healing environment. Designed by Tsoi/Kobus & Associates (TK&A) to be Minnesota’s first “green” children’s hospital, Amplatz seamlessly combines evidence-based and sustainable design to provide an engaging experience to patients, and comfort for the whole family.

The six-story, 231,500-square-foot building consolidates the hospital’s pediatric programs and inpatient units, and provides some more breathing room for the wide range of services offered by the hospital. The new facility includes 96 same-handed, private inpatient rooms; a sedation/observation unit; a dialysis unit; a pediatric emergency department; an expansion of the imaging department and surgical suite; a family resource center; gift shop; and underground parking. The medical facilities alone make Amplatz a top-tier hospital, but it’s the immersive environment created by TK&A that makes it an innovator in children’s healthcare.

The experience actually begins long before setting foot inside the doors. Viewable from Interstate 94 as well as East River Drive, a major arterial into Minneapolis, Amplatz’ bright exterior panels announce its presence in a very dramatic way. Manufactured in England by Rimex Metals Group, the panels are made of stainless steel and covered in an anodized coating that provides a dichroic effect, reflecting light in different ways depending on how it strikes the surface. According to Richard Kobus, FAIA, FACHA, TK&A senior principal and principal-in-charge for the Amplatz project, the resulting splash of blues and purples achieve the ideal balance of being inviting and projecting credibility.

“We didn’t want a building that was in any way institutional or threatening to children. We thought this was a good way to make the building appropriately playful without being childish or silly,” Kobus says, noting that children frequently refer to the building’s exterior as “magical.”

Once inside, the hospital’s unique “Passport to Discovery” theme takes over, guiding children and adults through the facilities with the help of 15 “storytellers”—animal companions chosen for their contributions to our understanding of medicine and biology, such as the sea snail and the tree frog. Each floor of the hospital corresponds to, and is designed to reflect, a specific ecosystem—the deep ocean takes up three underground levels of parking and the first two floors of the hospital, while the grasslands, lakes, rainforest and desert occupy the upper levels. From there, a storyteller occupies various locations on each floor. Patients and adults are encouraged to visit the storyteller, who in turn teaches lessons about their natural environment through graphic and art elements. The patients are given “passports” which are stamped after each lesson, and are encouraged to explore.

“It was a way of motivating children to move around the floor, to walk if they could or go in a wheelchair,” Kobus says. “One of the big challenges for a children’s hospital is when children are feeling ill, they’re reluctant to move around. They’re cautious about it, and anything you can do to entice them to take those first steps, to move down the hallway, to see other places and get out of their room is actually very beneficial to their recovery.”

The patient rooms themselves have been designed to soothe and accommodate families for long stretches of time. At 390 square feet, the private patient rooms are 65 percent larger than the national average and provide distinct caregiver, patient and family zones. Each room includes a sleeper sofa from Nemschoff suitable for two parents, as well as a round “kitchen” table for family meals, games and schoolwork, and a computer desk with an internet connection. Microwaves and refrigerators allow families to keep preferred foods on hand, and a wardrobe and safe can be used to store belongings. A monitor at each bed allows patients to control lighting and entertainment, or to call a nurse. Writeable surfaces promote communication and self-expression, while room furnishings from KI and Wieland are comfortable and relaxing.

The patient rooms have also been designed to keep frequently used materials and equipment at the ready, reducing the need for nursing staff to go “hunting and gathering,” as Kobus puts it. This move works in conjunction with the design team’s decision to decentralize nursing operations in favor of a “nursing neighborhoods” concept, which breaks the hospital’s four 24-bed units into neighborhoods of six beds and six patients. Each neighborhood is supported by a team station with its own medication and nourishment areas, and nurse servers in all patient rooms shorten “get” time and decrease the number of staff who enter a patient’s room. According to Kobus, the shift has greatly improved a number of patient metrics, as well as staff morale.

“Nurses told us they would spend 30 to 40 minutes wandering around the floor to supply closets, to the medication station, to the utility room, gathering all of the supplies that they needed to do a procedure with the patient,” he says. “We were able to cut down the travel distance for nurses from 9 miles a day to 5 miles a day—literally in half. That increases the time that nurses are spending with their patients, and more time with the patients increases satisfaction, but more importantly, dramatically increases safety.”

Much thought was also put into creating the healthiest, most sustainable environment possible, with TK&A placing a special emphasis on maximizing natural light in interior spaces and maintaining superior indoor air quality. Notches in the building’s angular architecture help bring sunlight deep into the center of the floor plate; the children’s playrooms and conference areas on each floor are positioned at these notches, providing both exceptional views and abundant light. Wall-to-wall expanses of glass in the patient rooms provide consistent daylighting, and one pane extends to the floor so small children can see out.

The design team also worked with experts in healthcare indoor air quality from the University of Minnesota, and low-VOC and non-toxic interior materials were used throughout the project. Patient rooms were designed to be airtight, and extensive pressure testing during the construction phase helped engineers find and eliminate any leakages of air and sound.

And while the facility’s use of the campus’ steam and chilled water system prevented the project from obtaining Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, Kobus says that “everything downstream of there” was designed to be as energy efficient as possible. As a result, the hospital can expect to see a 20 percent reduction in the energy uses associated with heating and cooling.

All of this adds up to a hospital environment that does more than just care for the physical ailments of its patients—it provides emotional and mental support to families going through a difficult period, while speeding the recovery process for all involved. While Kobus says that his team is proud of the building as a piece of architecture, they are more thrilled by the way people have taken to the building. Employees have used their own money to buy scrubs that reflect the ecosystem they are working in, and Kobus says that he frequently hears of children asking their parents if they can stay at the hospital. But perhaps the best anecdotal evidence of the project’s success comes from a former patient of the old children’s hospital.

“The son of the chairwoman of the patient family council spent far too long in the old [children’s] hospital, and is now well,” Kobus recalls. “He toured the new hospital with his mother, and the very next day he very suddenly became ill. He told his mother that he wasn’t feeling very well, and that maybe she should take him to the hospital. His mother said that would be fine, but there wasn’t any room at the new hospital, and if he went, he’d probably have to go to the old hospital.”

“He recovered instantly,” he adds with a laugh.

What better review could you ask for?


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University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital
2450 Riverside Avenue
Minneapolis, MN 55454
(888) 543-7866

project team
Tsoi/Kobus & Associates
One Brattle Square
PO Box 9114
Cambridge, MA 02238
(617) 475-4000


MEP, Civil Engineer
HGA Engineers
(866) 205-9668

Construction Manager
Kraus-Anderson Construction Company

Program Manager
Jacobs Engineering Group

Structural Engineer
Meyer, Borgman & Johnson