A while back, I wrote about the importance of checking our preconceived notions. Among other factors, I was inspired by a project we were just starting to design. This was a facility specifically targeting patients who were not physically dangerous. It got me thinking about some deep metaphysical ideas about what behavioral healthcare is anyway.
Recently, that facility opened. It is both beautiful and appropriately safe for its population. It received all the appropriate licenses and accreditations. The owner was very happy that we had found the right balance between the feel of the space, the needs of the patients and appropriate safety features.
As I watched everyone appreciating the building at the grand opening, I was reminded of an important bit of wisdom I learned from a professor in architecture school: “You have to know the rules to break the rules.” While he was making me meticulously draw a full-scale elevation of a Corinthian column, the same idea applies here. If you just read the guidelines, you can’t do what we did. To break the rules, to make a space that is specific to a clinical paradigm that isn’t typical, you have to not only understand what the rules are, but why they are. Only with that knowledge can you find the right balance.
In a self-serving way, I will remind my readers of an old blog post where I opined that behavioral healthcare spaces should be designed by behavioral healthcare architects. I believe that even more today. Every behavioral healthcare space is different. The right choices for an acute care space with an average length of stay of less than a week may be very different from a long-term care space where patients stay for months. A state hospital is very different from a general hospital inpatient unit and these are all different from a residential treatment facility or a crisis stabilization unit. Throw patient typologies into the mix such as geriatrics, pediatrics, deaf, blind, forensic or med-psych, and you have an almost infinite variety of options.
A good way to start a design or renovation project is to clearly identify the nature and type of space to be created. Then identify what works well or doesn’t work well in the existing space and how it might work best in the future state. It can also be a good idea to identify other recently built projects with a similar profile and visit them.
Above all else, don’t fall into the trap of thinking all behavioral healthcare is the same and don’t let your architect give you an off-the-shelf solution that may be a bad fit for you. Demand a personalized solution, customized for your business plan, patients and staff. You deserve it and so do they.