Students walk the nature trail in front of the McLeod Tyler Wellness Center.
Bare, white and windowless spaces abound in healthcare settings, but research shows that isolation from the world works against the healing process. Some hospitals have embraced artwork, walls of glass, calming color palettes and natural materials to bring the outside in.
The reflection and incorporation of nature in constructed spaces is the philosophy behind the architectural principles of biophilic design.
According to Bob Gesing, national healthcare practice leader and principal at the architecture firm Trinity:NAC, hospitals everywhere need to implement it to improve patient experiences.
The style is clearly visible at Newport (Washington) Health Center, which Gesing and associate principal Bill Rash designed ahead of its construction in 2016. The 18,000-square-foot facility, in a rural part of the state, features two stories of glass, skylights, stonework and exposed timber sourced from the area.
“Newport is a critical-access hospital. They’re not rolling in dough. To instill the principles that you would see at Cleveland Clinic or a major health system, but doing it at a scale and cost where it doesn’t break the bank, is an important story to share,” Gesing said. “It’s been extremely well received.””
The Newport Health Center’s exposed timber and abundance of natural light bring patients closer to the outside world.
So, too, has the McLeod Tyler Wellness Center at the College of William & Mary, according to Kelly Crace, a psychologist and associate vice president for health and wellness at the college in Williamsburg, Virginia. Completed in 2018, the $19 million, 31,000-square-foot center is sandwiched between a wildlife refuge and a garden, with enough glass for panoramic views of it all. It houses the college’s student health center, counseling center, office of health promotion and recreational areas for activities like yoga and art therapy.
“We spent a couple of years researching and trying to understand the architecture of wellness, the architecture of healing, and what that might look like,” Crace said. The school decided to house its health center in the building, he said, because “nature provides that three-dimensional space. Nature provides us the opportunity to engage in a very healing way.”
Many organizations don’t have the infrastructure to build from scratch or the license to make big biophilic modifications. NYC Health + Hospitals, which still occupies 19th-century buildings, has connected its patients to nature—among other themes—through artwork since the 1930s. The health system is the city’s largest public art collector and displays more than 600 murals and 3,000 works of art across its 11 facilities.
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Despite the limitations of some buildings, Oscar Gonzalez, the health system’s senior assistant vice president of capital development, hopes the organization will explore more wellness-focused designs down the line.
“There’s something wonderful about being able to walk into a space and say, ‘Wow, I just entered the lobby and I feel like I’m gonna get healthy just by walking in. Nobody’s plugged anything into me, nothing has been done, except walking into a space that makes me feel good,’” he said. “That’s the direction we want to go.
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