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Austin Oaks design preserves site’s heritage oak trees

August 20, 2014

Nestled against a backdrop of large oak trees, the Austin Oaks Hospital feels like a home rather than a clinical setting—and that's just what the behavioral healthcare facility intended.

The hospital's chief executive officer didn't want the facility, located in the heart of Austin, Texas, to feel institutional so architects and designers worked to create a space that could eliminate the otherwise-expected outdoor gates and glassed-in nurses stations. Rather, they aimed for elements specifically chosen to create a warmer environment reminiscent of a resort or family home.

Audrey Wernecke, the project architect and a principal at Polkinghorn Group Architects, Inc. says to accomplish that task, the team—including interior design firm InDesign, Inc.—created a space in creamy whites, blues and greens. They  selected finishes that weren't typically used in an institutional setting, such as a vinyl sheet product that looks like wood to line the facility's hallway floors and a similar product in patient rooms.

Families can rest or help themselves to a cup of coffee at a coffee bar in the hospital's lobby, while patients can freely interact with nurses at open nurse stations in the patient wings of the building.  

"We didn't glass anything in, and the staff felt that it was important that it be open to the patient population so that it's approachable," Wernecke says. "We tried to make it warm and inviting through that manner, through the design, not just the finishes."

Design challenges

While the result was an inviting 51,420 square foot in-patient facility with 80 patient beds to serve children, adolescents and adults, Wernecke says the building process wasn't without its challenges.

Part of the appeal of the facility site is the large heritage oak trees that fill 34 acres. But while the trees add a backdrop for a soothing place to get well, they made planning the building's layout a difficult proposition. The city prevented developers from removing or damaging any heritage oak trees on the property—or those trees greater than 24 inches in diameter—forcing architects to design around the existing landscape.

The hospital was constructed on a property that once housed a treatment center. In 2011, Universal Health Services,(UHS), which owned the property, wanted to build the new behavioral health facility to add beds for an underserved population. Austin Oak’s design team considered using some of the seven or eight existing small buildings scattered throughout the property for the new hospital, but many were old and not up to code.

Instead, architects decided to tear down the existing buildings on the property and build a new facility from the ground up. The design team brainstormed the options and ultimately developed 13 different layouts before deciding on the building's final design.

"It looks like a triangle with a leg, so we were able to miss all those heritage trees," Wernecke says.

Each wing of the building serves a different population: one wing serving children and adolescents ages 4 to 17; another serving an adult population; and another reserved for patients needing more intensive psychiatric care.

While the trees were initially seen as a challenge, Wernecke says they ultimately helped facilitate a usable and functional layout to the hospital.

"At the intersection of each one of the wings there's a nurse station that can look down two corridors so  that the units can be flipped if needed. Or if you had a census one day that has a higher population in pediatric or a higher adult population, one nurses station can look down and cover multiple units," she says.

The property is also home to a separate 6,000 square foot outpatient services building that includes adult partial hospitalization, a social learning modification program and an intensive outpatient program.

 Curbing costs

While Universal Health Services and members of the design team placed emphasis on the design and functionality of the building, Wernecke says that the team was able to keep costs down. For example, they were able to save money was by prebuilding patient bathrooms in a factory allowing the team to just drop the prebuilt pods into place during construction.

"It was easy to do that because we had so many that were the exact same," Wernecke says.

Also by using Lean design and construction techniques the architects, owners, contractors and subcontractors were able to collaborate on the planning process and select design elements and systems that were the most cost effective and the best fit for the project.


Austin Oaks Hospital

Cost: $16,000,000

Architect – Polkinghorn Group Architects, Inc.

Contractor – Lott Brothers Construction Company

Interior Design – InDesign, Inc.

Structural Engineer – CJG Engineers

Mechanical, Plumbing & Electrical Engineers – Agnew Associates, Inc.

Civil Engineer – Cunningham-Allen, Inc.

Landscape Architect – Thomas D Brown and Associates

Lean Coach – InsideOut Consulting, Inc.

Prefabricated Bathroom Pods – NeoPod Systems 

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