Designers have a wide variety of tools available to them as they design a space to look and feel just right. One tool that we love to use is incorporating textures into a space.
Texture can be soft, such as fabric, or rough, such as brick. They can be applied textures, such as plaster finishes, or manufactured, such as molded plastic panels. These are all great design moves in the right setting.
However, be warned that the right setting for certain textures might not be a behavioral health facility. At the very least, make sure you know what you are doing if you are going to use them.
In any healthcare setting, some textures can be detrimental to infection control procedures. Fabric panels and brick fall into this category. In behavioral healthcare, we also need to think about the tactile effect of the texture. If it is a harsh finish, it can cause harm if a patient rubs vigorously against it or is pushed against it. Brick is an example of a material that is problematic for both of these reasons.
Also, textures, might create a visual specularity that makes distinguishing planes difficult for many patients. In the most extreme cases, poorly designed specular patterns can create a flicker effect and might be associated with seizures.
What to choose
So, does this mean that all textures should be avoided in behavioral healthcare? Of course not. We use them all the time. It means that you need to know what you are doing and make sure the decision is based on the impact on a therapeutic environment, rather than just an aesthetic choice.
If you are using fabric panels for acoustical effect, the sound quality improvement may be worth the maintenance. Are the panels located where they won’t get touched? Are they made of an anti-microbial fabric? Are they well secured to the wall? Are they in supervised areas? The more “yes” answers you get to these questions, the greater the chance that you are making a good decision.
What about brick? Is it ever okay? Sure. We recently used it to define the connection to an outdoor space. We let the brick wall from the courtyard extend into the building. The tactile danger wasn’t much of an issue, because they could touch the same brick when they were outside, so it was normalized. We also minimized it by cutting a large cased opening in the brick wall where it came into the building.
The end effect was that it looked like there was a brick wall inside the building, but only about 4 inches of brick on each side of the opening was actually exposed at the level of human interaction. The rest was above 8 feet and less of a concern.
Molded plastic panels and other manufactured products are usually pretty safe if they don’t have sharp corners and can be properly secured to the walls. Please check this carefully. Most of these products are designed for a general hospital environment, but may not be appropriate for a psychiatric acute care unit.
Plaster can also be a great idea. If you use it with a troweled or knock down finish, it should be fine. However, popular textures that emulate a popcorn finish with lots of small points are not a good idea in behavioral units. Any plaster should have a washable final coat to enhance infection control efforts.