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2012 Design Showcase

May 15, 2012
by Dennis Grantham, Editor-in-Chief
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This year's projects blend inspiration, vision, value, and practicality
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The roots of this project’s Citation of Merit are found in its “comprehensive pre-design planning and collaboration with patients, families, and staff” which resulted in “a huge improvement in flow and finishes,” a “lean and efficient flow and circulation,” and “great daylighting and access to scenes of nature,” highlighted not only by plenty of windows, but also a simulated cloudscape on the ceiling of one of the Institute’s day rooms.

A big budget psychiatric hospital project that earned a Citation of Merit was Cannon Design’s concept for the new St. Joseph Healthcare’s new, 204-bed inpatient/outpatient mental health facility in Hamilton, Ontario. This $280 million, in-process project was praised for its attractive and welcoming exterior, a design that reflects a growing trend of behavioral health facilities that boldly and proudly express their role and value in the community.

Judges were impressed by its integration of natural courtyards and daylight, its arrangement of “onstage” (patient-facing) and “offstage” (service/business) corridors, and its “great swing bed zone between units,” a feature that will help the facility deal with wide swings in patient census.

The growing diversity of behavioral health services and needs are reflected in two projects that earned the Showcase’s Honorable Mention. Stantec Architecture linked old and new in a $5.2 million effort to  “rebuild the heart” of Lutherwood Children’s Mental Health Centre in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, with spaces to welcome the public and support a new generation of treatment and wellness services.

And, Elskop Scholz wowed the judges with its $1.5 million renovation of the Lewis Wellness Center at Fountain House in New York City, which offered “a stunning before and after transformation of high-rise space,” a “fresh color palette,” and a “clean, warm, simplicity” to engage both body and mind.

Racing to keep pace with changing needs

Another key realization was that, for all their training and expertise, our judges and their fellow architects, designers and consultants, are racing to keep pace with the with the practical challenges of our fast-changing field. One major challenge began years ago and continues today: Many states are closing large, aging, and costly psychiatric hospitals, only to find that more of their dwindling number of beds are occupied by forensic patients.

Only a relative handful of states are electing to reconcept and remodel aging state facilities to meet the latest needs.

These state-level challenges translate into changing concerns at the region, county, or community level as the designers and owners  of behavioral health facilities today find that they’re dealing with:

  • a higher acuity of patients—stable or “in-crisis” patients dealing with mental health, addictions or acute intoxication, co-occurring disorders, the impacts of trauma, or dementia.
  • a broader diversity of patients—adult men and women, adolescents, boys and girls, military personnel, or individuals in the justice or juvenile justice systems.
  • a need for more doorways to and from treatment—a welcoming “front door” for voluntary admissions or diversions from the local ER; a secure back door (often called a “sally port”) for jail diversion or juvenile justice cases; and an “exit” door for all to aftercare in their home or community.
  • a growing desire for wellness—either as a means of prevention or a means of sustaining recovery for those who’ve received treatment.

Appreciating design in new ways

If it is axiomatic that “form follows function,” than it follows that the challenges confronting architects and designers are ever more complex, demanding new approaches and solutions. It also follows that, in order to appreciate the varied beauty of such work, those who pay for it and benefit from it must learn to appreciate its beauty in more varied and subtle ways.

Beyond a pleasing façade and welcoming public spaces, how does the work support healing processes, keep vulnerable people safe, help sustain better outcomes, and solve social or community problems?

How does it inspire, integrate with, and invite the surrounding locale to rethink the stigma of behavioral health treatment and accept the real, local need for these services? How does it contribute, and what does it save—in lives, in dollars, in human potential—for individuals and for the larger community?

Getting the project right—right up front

According to our judges, the success of a behavioral health facility project proceeds directly from the ability of the project’s creator to listen broadly and carefully to all stakeholders. “It is all about the conversation up front. That is the only way to avoid backtracking [on project requirements],” said one.

In the past, this meant listening to funders, practitioners, and facility staff. Today, however, it also means hearing the voices of service recipients themselves, and their family members, throughout the design process. One panelist thought it wise to get project input by walking in the shoes of a patient: “I’d suggest that the architectural manager and lead designer for any project spend a night or two on the unit.”

Another asserted, “You’ve got to have the balance. You’ve got to be able to shift from [hearing] staff concerns to getting the input of patients and families, whose feelings and needs often place them at odds with staff.” Getting this balance right is essential to avoiding problems with patient care and staff turnover because, as the judge explained, staff-related concerns “own the lifecycle cost of a project.”