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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : July/August 2007 : Feature

Sustaining Good Health
Sustainable hospital designs are healing the planet as well as the patients.

by Michelle Halle Stern


Twenty years ago, a research study found that hospital patients with views of nature rather than brick walls went home three quarters of a day earlier, used $500 less in services and medicines, required fewer heavy medications and exhibited better emotional well-being. The study was conducted by Roger S. Ulrich, who published the results in 1984. Today, anyone trying to connect human healing and sustainable building practices begins by citing the Ulrich study.

A lot has happened since then, and continuing research has shown that sustainable health-care facility design also affects the recruitment and retention of staff, improves productivity, enhances safety and provides a host of other benefits that ultimately contribute to the patient healing process. As more of these design strategies are implemented in the health-care industry, evidence will continue to show that carefully considering sustainable design will provide not only environmental benefits, but healing benefits as well.

Research illustrates just how tightly intertwined environmental and human health can be. Studies show that night-shift workers are more alert when exposed to intermittent bright light rather than a constant light level. Preterm infants sleep better and gain more weight in intensive care units where light is cycled down at night. Adult patients have a more restful night if lights in hallways are dimmed. These simple and energy-saving changes have been proven to result in more alert night workers and faster patient recovery time.

Health-care companies around the country are embracing these sustainable building ideas, adopting practices and constructing facilities with sustainable features that benefit the environment and patients. Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s largest non-profit health system, is developing facility designs that call for alternatives to products and materials containing formaldehyde, mercury and PVC. Kaiser was an early adopter of the Green Guide for Health Care, a hospital-focused sustainable design program similar to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) guide for health-care facilities. The two programs use very similar strategies, but differ in that LEED is a third-party certification and ratings tool, and the Green Guide is a voluntary, self-certifying tool.

Sustainable strategies contained in these guides include descriptions of site orientation of buildings, exterior building design, interior lighting, daylighting, flooring, heating and air conditioning ventilation and much more. The guide also provides information on increasing the amount of glass for daylighting entrances, waiting rooms, nurse’s stations, staff lounges and treatment areas. Another focus suggests using alternatives to chlorinated materials, and selecting rubber flooring over high gloss vinyl composition tile to eliminate the need to regularly wax floors and reduce slips and falls. With rising asthma cases in health-care workers, the guide also provides material selection ideas and maintenance procedures to reduce mold and mildew, and recommends using products with minimal amounts of volatile organic compounds. A comprehensive list of sustainable ideas is available in the latest version of the Green Guide for Health Care.

Learn from Others
New strategies for sustainable design can be learned from more than just guides. Look at what designers are doing with today’s hospitals, medical office buildings and other health-care facilities. Make note of these inspired ideas to help create sustainable design concepts that can meet your company’s needs.

At a planned replacement hospital in South Florida, designers have developed an innovative solar shading concept through a sloping façade where each floor provides shade for the floor below it. The building also limits east and west exposures, making it easier to shade the windows. The design will reduce the facility’s heat gain and glare, making patients and staff more comfortable.

The Heart Hospital at SwedishAmerican in Rockford, Ill., employs a sustainable design concept called “Places of Respite.” These virtual landscapes of plants on every floor provide a place for patients and visitors to decompress from the stress of the hospital environment and enjoy an atmosphere where plants naturally help filter the air and provide humidity.

The Oregon Health and Science University Patient Care Facility in Portland created healing gardens on its roof. Terraces constructed on both the seventh and ninth floors feature gardens of drought-tolerant plants and herbs for patients to visit or enjoy by watching from their rooms. These gardens help foster the healing process and capture and use storm water for irrigation, reducing the harmful environmental effects associated with storm water runoff.

Michelle Halle Stern is an architect at the Chicago office of Perkins+Will. She manages green building research for the firm’s national health-care market sector.

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