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How to stretch $50 grand

May 20, 2015
by Julia Brown, Associate Editor
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Behavioral Healthcare recently presented top experts with a design challenge, asking for advice on what facility upgrades they might prioritize if they had a budget of only $50,000. While it’s easy to make improvements with $1 million in hand, not all centers have that luxury.

“It’s tough to make much of an impact with $1 to $2 per square foot,” says Kevin Turner, AIA, LEED, principal, Perkins+Will.  Kevin Turner Headshot

Although that might be the case, low-cost changes can have noticeable impact. In fact, you might be surprised to see what can be done on a tight budget.

Safety upgrades

Every year, new antiligature products are developed and brought to market, says Turner, and each one that you don’t have in your facility can represent a liability. Some examples would be installing safer door handles, swapping out hinges, updating shower curtains, and adding over-the-door alarms.

“If I had a small pot of money and wanted to reduce my liability, I would look for the best bang for my buck in safety improvements as a risk management strategy,” he says.

James Hunt HeadshotWhen minimizing risk, James M. Hunt, AIA, president of Behavioral Health Facility Consulting, LLC, recommends prioritizing spaces where self-harm acts traditionally take place: patient bathrooms and bedrooms. He says those are the locations where patients spend time without supervision.

Aesthetic upgrades

What you can buy for just $50,000Depending on the space, Turner says $50,000 may not get much more than a coat of paint. Instead, he advises focusing on improving one specific room or area instead of trying to impact the entire facility. Look at the details. Even something as simple as a nicely-designed niche for the television with a ventilated safety-glass cover might be a nice improvement, he says.

Improved quality of interior light is another aesthetic opportunity to consider. For example, Turner says designers can improve the feel of a space by simply changing out ballasts and bulbs in existing fixtures. Designers agree lighting is an aspect that can often be overlooked.

 “If it’s an older behavioral health facility, chances are the lighting isn’t up to current standards or isn’t providing warmth; it’s probably more of the typical florescent lighting,” says Dennis Vonasek, AIA, ACHA, CID, vice president and healthcare principal, HGA Architects and Engineers in Minneapolis. “Lighting is one of the best ways to get a bang for your buck.”

Dennis Vonasek Headshot Making a space more aesthetically pleasant with effective use of light will drive in users of that space, whether it’s an art room or a lounge area. Lighting has also been found to benefit treatment.

“There have been multiple studies done that show the benefits of color-corrective lighting in a patient environment as far as lighting speed and the right blend of color temperature,” Vonasek says, explaining that it helps with things like patient skin tone, and promoting a healthy environment.  “Shop your options when it comes to lighting. See what’s out there because there are lots of people providing very similar outcomes at very different price points.”

Article: How to enhance your space for next to nothing

Don Thomas, design principle, BWBR Architects, recommends enhancing the aesthetics of a space by incorporating a collection of graphics and art that could be rotated out and personally selected by the patients. Another option would be setting up an art program that would bring artists in to guide patients through various projects. Artistic expression would not only be therapeutically beneficial for the patients, Thomas says, but displaying the resulting projects would visually enhance the treatment space.Don Thomas Headshot

“You don’t want to just buy one piece of art— I think that would be a waste—but art doesn’t have to be expensive,” he says. “Having the patients choose what would be near their room gives them choice and allows them to be more empowered. There are a lot of ways to work with that, and you could stretch $50,000 out pretty far.”

Thomas adds that it’s important to avoid chaotic or relationship-focused pieces when choosing artwork because they could potentially trigger stress, sadness or other negative emotions. For example, a Jackson Pollock might increase anxiety and anything depicting romance might be painful for someone who is away from their loved one. Instead, he says, it’s best to select items that emphasize warmth and communicate healing.

Vonasek says that although custom artwork might not be an option given the budget, poster art could be an economical solution that would be even more beneficial when paired with improved lighting. 

“Providing any sort of positive distraction and throwing the light source on it could be a pretty high impact solution aesthetically with not a lot of money,” he says.

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