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Menninger Clinic looks to build something bigger in Texas

July 20, 2011

In 2003, The Menninger Clinic, a psychiatric organization with deep roots in Topeka, Kan., left its home of nearly 80 years and relocated to Houston. The move was motivated by a desire to build a new level of integration with a medical college, to provide patients with the most up-to-date mental healthcare.

“The issue of an integrated strategy was brought before the Menninger Board in 1999 during a strategic planning process in Topeka that we called to cope with the changing economics of mental healthcare insurance,” explains Ian Aitken, Menninger's president and CEO.

The Board decided that an affiliation with a medical college was “necessary to sustain our mission of treatment, research and education while remaining solvent,” according to Aitken. Soon, Menninger moved the organization to Houston and became affiliated with the Baylor College of Medicine.

However, the 14-acre campus with its retrofitted and renovated buildings (which served as the clinic's home since 2003) was always meant to be temporary. In fact, plans for a “Mental Health Epicenter” began in earnest in 2007 with the help of a $25 million donation. A new location was chosen, land was purchased and architectural plans were drawn up.

Now as Menninger's new “Epicenter” begins to take shape, the organization's international headquarters will eventually emerge-a state-of-the-art campus built on almost 50 acres, holding 120 beds, and capable of offering patients the highest level of psychiatric care available.

The first phase of the three-phase, 10-year plan consists of six new buildings (totaling 161,000 square feet) that will be built on 23 acres. Construction began in November 2010 and is scheduled to be completed by April 2012.

Making the right adjustments

Long after the Menninger Clinic was founded in 1925 by Dr. C.F. Menninger, along with his two sons, Drs. Karl and Will Menninger, their legacy continues to guide the organization. As a result, their commitment to a “patient-centered approach” has provided considerable inspiration. Over the course of several months, Menninger staff members participated in more than 75 meetings concerning the design of the new facility. 

One of the primary issues was proximity to the Texas Medical Center. While the existing facility is about 45 minutes away, the new Epicenter will be no more than a 10-minute drive-providing access to medical care, clinical studies and the country's largest neuroimaging laboratory for patients.

The proximity allows clinicians and faculty to create a robust scientific environment for psychiatric research, richly informing both treatment and education.

Unfortunately, a significant obstacle was introduced when the economy started to crumble in the middle of Menninger's capital campaign. But the organization's founders left the clinic another important piece of advice. Decades earlier, Karl Menninger had suggested that “patients could be treated in a barn with the right staff.” So, the design team started to make adjustments.

First, they were able to reduce the project from a $100 million endeavor to just $65 million-cost savings that resulted from a more competitive atmosphere among suppliers and for labor. Further adjustments included the removal of 50,000 square feet, which was accomplished by combining two buildings into one and converting to an open-floor plan for administrative offices. Yet, nearly the entire original care plan remains intact.

Making every effort to use local labor and supplies, Menninger also had the good fortune of working with Houston-based Tellepsen Builders and Kirksey Architects, whose staff members remained sensitive to the organization's nonprofit status, as well as the project's goals, which included:

  • Establishing Houston as an international center of mental healthcare, research and education, maintaining the founders' principal mission.

  • Addressing mental illnesses with the same urgency as cancer and heart disease.

  • Eliminating obstacles caused by stigma surrounding mental illness.

  • Serving as a hub of leading health and prevention programs.

Designing a “timeless” environment

The six buildings that comprise Phase I of the Epicenter include a “Commons Building,” facilities management operations, a hospitality building at the entrance to the campus, and three one-story patient care building that will house five inpatient programs. Programs that will be offered include:

  • Adolescent treatment
  • Compass young adult
  • Comprehensive psychiatric assessment and stabilization
  • Hope adult
  • Professionals in crisis

Each patient care building allows for a flexible number of beds and includes unit offices for the treatment teams.

“A key element of the design is the timeless nature of the environment, with the living areas reminiscent of a home,” notes Larry Denoyer, vice president of Facilities and Property Management, Menninger's chief overseer of the project.  

Patient housing totals 87,851 square feet and contains private and semi-private rooms (private bathrooms and closets for each patient), clinical treatment spaces, spacious living and visitor areas, and private patios with walking paths for each unit building.

The 60,593-square-foot Commons Building is the only two-story structure on campus. In addition to administrative offices and research support, the Commons Building provides access to patient services such as dining, cashier and a Wellness Center that includes a full-size gymnasium, workout and exercise salons and fitness and nutritional training.

Also housed there will be the donor wall, chapel, pharmacy, educational and training rooms, and an outdoor saltwater pool.

“A key feature of this building is the patient admissions area, which will have an improved flow with a private entrance for incoming patients and families as well as concierge service,” Denoyer says. “On the units, there will be private space for visiting family members to spend leisure time with their family member.”

The Facilities Building is 12,457 square feet and contains laundry, general stores, maintenance shops and the central mechanical and electrical systems. A key feature of the building is an emergency power source and internal water storage, which can support 96 hours of cooking, showers and toilets in the event of a water shortage.

“This will minimize the need for evacuation due to normal loss of power during a major weather event,” explains Denoyer. “Water was an issue in 2008 when Hurricane Ike hit the Gulf Coast. While Menninger's drinking water was available, water pressure was reduced to a trickle. That won't be a problem at the Epicenter.” 

The campus will also contain 550 mature trees, a 12,000-foot long, 10-foot tall wooden fence, 322 parking spaces and covered walkways to provide relief from Houston's hot climate and an average rainfall that tops 50 inches. 

Going “green” and more key features

All structures are being built to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, an internationally recognized green building certification system. Menninger has decided for the sake of cost savings of several hundred thousand dollars to forgo applying for formal LEED certification.

“We know our campus is built to green standards and we are comfortable with that,” Denoyer says. Other notable design elements include:

  • Abundant natural lighting in patient bedrooms and common living areas

  • Secure exterior terraces within each unit to support the therapeutic environment while allowing for adequate staff supervision

  • Patient safety hardware that is specially designed for preventing self-harm, while also maintaining a therapeutic environment

  • Hurricane rated glass in all windows at the Commons Building

  • A variety of dining options to support multiple patient programs and private dining needs

  • Flexible room sizes for larger computer lab, training rooms and nurses' training

  • A meditative labyrinth and a garden outside the interfaith chapel

  • Multiple covered seating areas amongst planted, sloping berms

  • A sand volleyball court

Plans for the campus include two more building phases that will construct a professional and community educational center, a research institute, a depression center, space for outpatient treatment, and an administrative headquarters for collaborating mental health organizations.

Roger Verdon is development publications manager for the Menninger Clinic.

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