Creating Your Hospital’s ‘Third Place’

Posted on June 30, 2010


Starbucks aficionados may recognize the term third place as Starbucks’ attempt to create a gathering place away from home and work—a third alternative where social and productive time can be spent. As healthcare facility identities morph to serve different and expanded roles in communities, administrators may consider the overlooked aspects of their treatment environments as opportunities for improvement.

Hospitals seek a sense of place and successful spaces strike an emotion and feeling. For healthcare, that might translate into calm, safety, contemporary, open, folksy,…whatever is important to the mission. Building owners love the idea of structured space, but appreciate appropriate ad hoc use. When programming, it is easy to allocate space out of tradition—’hospitals always have one of those’—and then not have it used as much or as intended. Likewise, it is not easy to create ambiance without doing too much. An overly-designed lobby—grand piano, public sculpture, flat screens, garish lighting, background music, verdant planters—can repel.

Hospitals will never be confused with Google’s corporate campus; however, the use of a medical center’s public interior spaces can share some of that culture and comfortable use. Tapping the Starbucks reference again, the laptop and the latte are not necessarily foreign in a hospital. There is no reason healthcare environments cannot be casual work environments with wireless internet, comfortable sofas, side tables and fireplaces (or fish tanks, depending on your latitude). Why does the notion of relaxing in a hospital lobby feel like an odd idea?

Modern interiors must be flexible; there are no single function spaces anymore. As a facility owner, it is impossible to guarantee the lobby will not become a virtual living room for a family, or that an odd chair in a corridor will not become a charting alcove for an intern.

Non-clinical parts of a hospital are ripe for critical analysis toward the hospital mission and thus for increased duty. Every square foot ought to be put to good use; after all, you own it. From waiting areas to main circulation spines, all spaces are game for more thoughtful design and regular use by visitors and staff.

Waiting areas. Public telephone alcoves may be historical remnants in most facilities, but private areas to wander off to take a call are still important, as is smart lighting for reading and watching any television, if provided. Depending on the type of waiting area, 20 minute chairs will not fly; sample your options and provide comfortable seating for people waiting long periods. Design in subtle visual and natural sound barriers for registration and HIPAA-sensitive areas.

Lobbies. Choose one main focus item—water feature, donor wall, art—and build around it. Taste and comfort are not mutually exclusive. Lobbies at a hospital are like a town’s public square and should encourage lingering, and allow for family-sized group seating and tables to spread out.

Lounges. Whether for doctors, nurses or the public, they should be relatively quiet places for escape from the rigors of work. A recliner (or sleeper sofa for the staff) may be appropriate. Consider a theme so the room looks and feels different from the rest of the department / wing / floor.

Food Courts. Incorporate natural light and the outside where possible with dining patios and picnic areas, indoor and out. Encourage guests and employees to mix and eat outside the care zone. Design to relate to any adjacent retail area, if possible.

Main Circulation. Consider creative and well-integrated wayfinding; possibly automated flat screens that roll through programmed info. Heavy traffic should preclude large gathering, but places for one or two people to sit and put something down or read is important.

Transition Spaces. Consider corridor crossings with 45 degree angles as hubs to step off for side conversations among staff. Sky lights or coffered ceiling add some volume to these areas and create a more “room-like” space. A tasteful map or diagram can provide orientation to visitors, along with literature or a piece of furniture or art niche for focus at corridor terminations.

Hospital culture and feel count for guests and staff alike. The third place is not one room, but a collection of spaces that relate to each other, and will add greatly to the comfort of the guest experience.

Posted in: Interior Design