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What is the perfect color for your facility's design?

December 17, 2014
by James M. Hunt, AIA
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Much has been written about color and its use in behavioral healthcare environments.  Many people seem to think they have the answer that is right for all facilities.

The problems with this are many.  Two of them are that:

1. Color choice is very subjective, it varies widely between cultures and individuals within cultures. 

2. Color preferences are subject to trends and what is popular at any given time.

A few years ago, an architect with whom I was consulting on a behavioral healthcare project contacted me to say that our client wanted me to provide him some studies regarding which colors we should use in his project.  I replied by sending 12 studies. They were four groups of three studies.  For every study that said that blue was the best color to use, I sent two that said that blue should not be used, etc.

In my 45 years of experience, I have seen about every color you can think of used very successfully as major accent colors, including very bright red, yellow, blue and green when spectrum colors are in vogue.  When pastels are popular, I have seen them used very successfully in all hues.

Perhaps the most blatant example regarding a “scientifically based” one-size-fits-all solution to color use occurred in the late 1970s when Baker-Miller Pink was proclaimed to have a soothing effect and could greatly reduce hostile impulses in people.  Many mental hospitals painted their seclusion rooms this particular shade of bright pink.  It turned out that it was calming for some people—for about 15 minutes.  Then they became enraged and some even tried to peel the paint off of the walls with their fingernails.

The success or failure of a facility is much more dependent on the quality of the staff and the treatment they are providing than the environment.  A poor environment may contribute to deepening a patient’s depression and make them more difficult to treat.  However, I am not aware of any environmental design that will actively cure a patient suffering from a severe mental health diagnosis.  The most we can hope to accomplish with the environment is to help the patient relax in what they perceive as a calming, non-threatening environment which allows them to be open to the treatment that the staff will provide.

What is the perfect color?

 My suggestion is that, since we are trying to make the patients feel comfortable and like they are not in a clinical environment, we go with the current trends.  Nothing will make a facility look “dated” as quickly as colors that have gone out of style (some of you will remember the coppertone, avocado green, harvest gold colors popular for kitchen appliances).  The use of strong colors or trends that are more radical are best limited to surfaces and items that will normally be renewed periodically, such as paint, upholstery and similar items.


Jim Hunt

Behavioral Healthcare Design Consultant

Jim Hunt


James M. Hunt, AIA, is a practicing architect and facility management professional with over 40...

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