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Pay attention to details

April 1, 2007
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Many factors influence furniture selection for behavioral healthcare environments

In behavioral healthcare, the nuts and bolts really do matter—especially when you're talking about furniture.

“You really need to pay attention to everything about the furniture you buy,” says Steven Lindquist, executive director of Avera Behavioral Health Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Lindquist has been involved in the interior environmental development of two inpatient psychiatric facilities: the 110-bed Avera Center and a 300-bed facility. Lindquist pays attention to details, such as knobs and hinges on patient wardrobes, to make sure they're appropriate for and safe in psychiatric environments—and durable enough for their demands. For example, regarding locks on cabinetry, he says, “Builders may put in a regular-type lock, but it needs to be something that stands up to harder use.”

Durability is often the trump card in selecting furniture for healthcare environments, notes Tom Walker, regional director of sales for Nemschoff, a furniture manufacturer based in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Walker says that furniture in behavioral healthcare settings frequently is abused or misused by patients who are confused or subject to mood swings. “They may want to use the furniture to take out their frustration,” he explains.

Hand-in-hand with durability are safety features. Lindquist recommends examining if furniture can be easily broken or disassembled (e.g., can drawers be removed from dressers or legs taken off chairs?). Broken or detachable parts of furniture can be used as weapons or in suicide attempts.

But furniture isn't damaged just by patients. Before purchasing furniture, Walker suggests that buyers check if the manufacturer offers replacement parts should it be damaged by staff, such as by using floor-cleaning machines.

Jim Isom, operations manager for The Right Step addiction treatment facilities, adds that purchasers should choose furniture that can be cleaned easily. For example, most Right Step facilities use commercial white plastic tables in classrooms for adolescents. “If the kids write on the table, it's easily cleaned and you don't have to worry about replacing them,” he says.

Lindquist advises paying attention to the durability of furniture coverings, as well. “We found slick vinyl coverings looked nice, but they could be easily picked apart,” he explains. The coverings also could be punctured by pens and pencils. Lindquist says that woven vinyl coverings “are not ‘pickable.’ You can stick a pen through the fabric, and it just separates and then closes back up.”

Safety and durability features do carry costs, notes Walker. But Isom says the increased costs at the outset are worth it in the long run. “We don't want to be replacing furniture every 8 or 10 months,” he explains. The Right Step also controls costs by purchasing furniture that requires assembly. “We have it shipped in and assemble it ourselves,” Isom says.

Durability, in fact, drives Avera's furniture purchasing decisions. Thomas Otten, director of the behavioral health inpatient program at Avera, says that the furniture Avera purchases should:

  • protect the safety and security of patients and staff;

  • instill a sense of privacy and dignity in the patient population;

  • provide a spiritual feel to the building; and

  • create, in totality, a world-class facility.

“Those goals can't be met by rinky-dink furniture,” Otten says.

Lindquist adds that “We wanted furniture that would last, but that also wouldn't be out of place in a home or office setting. We went with a lot of natural woods and wood tones. We tried to minimize the use of metal. [Metal] might be more durable, but the wood has a better look and feel for rooms and treatment areas.”

A domestic feel might be especially important if the facility is primarily used for residential care. Lauren Hines, director of communications for Father Martin's ASHLEY in Havre de Grace, Maryland, notes that patients at her addiction treatment facility average 28-day stays. Consequentially, “the furnishings are very much residential,” she says. Dining tables and chairs are more durable than what you would find in private residences, but the facility does try to create “a feeling of home,” says Hines. The facility used interior design consultants when it was constructed 24 years ago and has continued to follow the themes initially laid out as it has replaced and upgraded furniture, including beds and nightstands in patients' rooms.

Finally, patient comfort is an important consideration, which includes “staying away from the institutional look, like a hospital, which seems cold,” Isom adds. He recommends, “Try to pick something fairly neutral, lighter wood colors, bright and cheerful…not institutional, not gloomy.”

Michael Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer.

A waiting area at avera behavioral health center A waiting area at Avera Behavioral Health Center.