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A Sustainable Approach: Organic Design Principles in Healthcare Architecture

Organic architecture is a design philosophy that emphasizes the harmony between human habitation and the natural world.  Perhaps the most famous example of this philosophy is Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Fallingwater—a building that seems to grow out of its very surroundings.  Wright designed the building to be a retreat for its owners, a space for calm and healing.

It is little wonder, then, that a connection to nature is becoming increasingly popular in healthcare design today.  This isn’t merely an intuitive perspective, however.  Researchers have found that healthcare design can improve healing outcomes when a building connects patients to a facility’s natural surroundings.

Today, architects and designers are taking a more holistic approach to healthcare design by incorporating elements that create a calming and healing environment for patients and staff. In this two-part blog series, we will explore organic architecture in healthcare design, and how this design approach can improve healing rates in patients, while also providing sustainable solutions that reduce the environmental impact of hospitals.

Benefits of organic architecture in healthcare

Often referred to as “biophilic design,” the connection between architecture and nature delivers several benefits that promote well-being and improve healing rates, such as:

  • Enhanced patient experience: Organic architecture can help to create a calm and relaxing environment for patients, which can lead to improved healing outcomes. The use of natural materials and flowing lines can help to reduce stress and create a sense of comfort and peace.
  • Increased staff satisfaction: A well-designed healthcare environment can also have a positive impact on staff satisfaction. By creating spaces that both aesthetically pleasing and functional, staff are more likely to feel motivated and engaged in their work.
  • Better indoor air quality: The use of natural materials in organic architecture can help to improve indoor air quality. This is particularly important in a healthcare setting where patients may have compromised immune systems.
  • Increased natural light: Many organic architecture designs incorporate large windows and skylights to induce natural light, which has been shown to have a positive impact on mental and physical health.
  • Reduced environmental impact: By using sustainable materials and incorporating green technologies, such as solar panels and rainwater harvesting systems, organic architecture can help to reduce the environmental impact of healthcare facilities.

Challenges of Nature in Healthcare Delivery

Integrating nature into hospital design—which demands sterile environments and efficient workspaces—may seem at odds on the face of it. How can a building create an organic sense of well-being for its users and ensure the safety and efficiency that a healthcare facility demands?

As well, an organic aesthetic demands that a building is sympathetic to its surroundings and reflects the environment in which it is situated. Many hospitals are built in urban surroundings, so connecting their architecture to nature can be challenging.

While a hospital may not end up looking exactly like Fallingwater, designers find innovative ways to bring nature to patients, visitors, and staff that are easy to navigate safely and efficiently.

Red Fish Healing Centre

Designed by Parkin Architects, The Red Fish Healing Centre for Mental Health and Addictions is in the heart of a natural setting in Canada. The building is surrounded by approximately 1,800 mature trees.  It is designed to blend seamlessly with its surroundings by providing therapeutic spaces with large windows that allow natural light to flood the interior spaces.  Natural elements, like wood accents in the ceilings and welcome areas, create a warm and welcoming atmosphere.

Colours like ochres and greens are used throughout the facility along with Indigenous art including the massive Kwikwetlem First Nation mural depicting eagles soaring and salmon swimming.  The lobby features a stunning house post carved from a 600-year-old cedar.

One of the key features of the Red Fish Healing Centre is its use of outdoor spaces. The building is surrounded by a series of secure terraces, gardens, and walkways that provide patients with access to nature. These outdoor spaces are designed to be both functional and therapeutic, with areas for relaxation and reflection, as well as spaces for group therapy.

The Red Fish Healing Centre design is influenced by the natural landscape on which it sits.  The unique angles and shapes of the patient wards are designed to maximize sightlines for patient and staff safety, as well as to place patient rooms and therapy spaces further into the natural setting, providing an immersive, interior/exterior, healing environment.

Joseph Brant Hospital

Another Parkin project, designers met different challenges in Joseph Brant Hospital, situated in Burlington, Ontario.  This redevelopment and expansion project had to incorporate urban design principles while also delivering the healing capabilities of a natural setting.

As the hospital is near Lake Ontario and has views of the Niagara Escarpment, the designers used blue accents throughout the design and natural wood on walls and in welcome areas. Many patient rooms have views of the lake or the escarpment.  The building’s multi-layered, green-roof system includes varied plantings that provide year-round visual interest for patients in rooms overlooking the rooftops.

Large windows and glass dividers create a feeling of light and transparency in common spaces, intentionally blurring the visual lines between interior and exterior.  Inner spaces feature large natural paintings and fixtures that reflect the facility’s urban location, but provide natural-feeling light.

The building includes a large setback to create a human-scale wall where it meets the street.  In this way, the building doesn’t feel imposing and is not overwhelming.

HSC Women’s Hospital

Winnipeg, Manitoba’s, HSC Women’s Hospital is an urban facility built to meet women’s lifelong, diverse, healthcare needs.  Situated on a tight footprint, the designers used novel organic design approaches to provide a holistic healing experience for users.

The curved roof on the exterior of the north facade features natural colours and is built using staggered setbacks to create a sympathetic human scale where the building faces the neighbourhood.  The exterior landscaping is continuous with no vehicle access, keeping the space connected to the urban neighbourhood.

The transparent, delicate south and east facade creates a connection between interior and exterior, while drawing in natural light. It features a fritted-glass mural that pays homage to Winnipeg’s urban elm forest.  The material reduces bird collisions and glare; it also cuts cooling costs to reduce the hospital’s carbon footprint.

Again, interiors incorporate natural wood accents as well as paintings of native Manitoban plants.  While common areas are open and designed to connect the interior space with the urban setting, patient-room privacy is key. The rooms each have large windows that allow patients and visitors a connection to the outside world, but they also include privacy shades that patients can operate as needed.

Calm colours were used in patient rooms for respite, while natural patterns and textures, such as water-droplet glazing and floral-patterned upholstery, create a soothing atmosphere.  Natural elements used in patient rooms, such as porcelain tile and wood grain, reinforce the biophilic environment.

The hospital’s urban setting posed unique challenges for the landscape design.  Clever use of bright colours and local wildflower images were used in the corridors and patient areas.  In the limited outdoor spaces, indigenous plants grow in raised planters that are punctuated with pops of bright pinks to create visual interest for patients, staff, and visitors.

Each of these healthcare facilities provides state-of-the-art for the people using them.  Their designs are sympathetic to their unique environments and deliver healing and relaxing atmospheres that reduce stress and promote healing.

In part two of this series, we’ll look at how organic architecture enhances sustainability and reduces the significant environmental impact that a healthcare facility can have.


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