Need for Progressive Healthcare Design

Posted on February 20, 2012


I follow less and less of ‘who’s hot’ as far as architectural design goes these days, probably because I am far more immersed in the specific market sector of healthcare. Also, I appreciate good design yet rarely see a project that, to me, evokes the future—what buildings might look like in 20 or 50 years. In my opinion, I saw one such project recently for the Evelyn Grace Academy by Zaha Hadid.

Hadid is a name I know.  The project is a secondary school in England, and it won the Stirling Prize in 2011, which is the most prestigious architecture prize in the UK given out to the architect who has most furthered architectural evolution in the past year.  In other words, the project is deemed progressive.

Evelyn Grace Academy has some aspects hospitals might borrow from. The site is tight and well utilized, with a very smart “S” curve building design that knits the entire site together. In addition, the site is used on multiple levels, with passage ways over and under the building. The building offers a lot of natural light, balcony and patio areas, and walkways. Color-wise, the school is understated on the exterior and interior, with natural concrete and metal panels to match the concrete color. Interior has exposed concrete and splashes of color for lockers and other points of emphasis. Hadid is known as an expert in concrete design and detailing, and this project is no exception.

If I were to suggest the progressive aspects of the building, I would say the offset curve of the building that makes it seem like the upper part is sliding out over the lower.  This provides a significant overhang shelter for weather without being precarious and threatening. The angle used in the building’s exterior metal panels (maybe a 75 degree angle) is acute without pinching, and gives the building a sense of motion. And the angle is not a one-and-done; it is consistent, especially on the interior structure, and even the curtainwall mullions are angled in some parts (which was probably a pain to install and costs more but adds a great deal). Ceilings and lighting are clean and well-done, but areas that do not need high finish (gym) are left natural and exposed, so the money can be spent on the parts that matter.

Hospitals are difficult to design in a sleek aesthetic because they are usually taller than they are wide, though not slim enough to be a true skyscraper. Hospitals have a lot going against them in their quest for beauty.  They are proportionally quite blocky.  They grow by accretion so they cannot be designed holistically very well.  They require constant access from many sides, so there is no true facade. And programmatically, there is not often much opportunity to engage nature and the exterior (though I hope this will change in the coming decades). Europe and Scandinavia are the world leaders in hospital aesthetics at the moment because they have challenged many assumptions in healthcare design canon.

And hospitals need not look expensive or sleek per se, though they should inspire confidence in wellness, and uplift the patients’ and visitors’ spirits. Unfortunately too few do. Some hospitals and systems are known for consistently good design—Banner Health comes to mind—while others let the enormity of a project get the best of the design—Ohio State University‘s Cancer, Critical Care, et. al expansion (now Wexner) comes to mind.

I think being progressive has value, especially in healthcare environments, because hospitals send the message that quality of space matters, new ideas are valued, and hospitals want to improve and escort us into the future of medicine by way of their facilities. Healthcare design is at an exciting time now as more evidence-based design is embedded into new projects and technology and information management continue to evolve. I would encourage an award similar to the Stirling Prize for progressive healthcare design.

Posted in: Design Zeitgeist