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Facility designers must leave preconceived notions at the door

May 04, 2015

Every once in a while you hear your own opinion come from someone else and realize you don’t like it.

 Recently, I had a conversation with a colleague about a photograph from a project she had worked on. I thought it was a good example of a nicely designed patient room for a psychiatric facility. She told me it was actually a doctor’s on-call room.

“I would never do that in a behavioral healthcare unit,” she told me.

I heard her comment and realized that I could just as easily have said the same thing. But have I been thinking too narrowly?

 Designers like me are quick to offer tips for creating the safest environment. In recent juries for the Behavioral Healthcare Design Showcase, we have criticized projects that had any perceived flaws in their safety features.

Am I skilled at designing behavioral healthcare facilities because I know all the anti-ligature products and how to navigate the code implications of special locking provisions? Or is there something deeper to this unique type of space?

I am involved in designing a facility right now whose board was explicit about not wanting to use those features. Their target market is very specific. They have an extensive screening process and take patients that are not at risk for self-harm.

Risky? Maybe, but so is trying to treat that population in an environment that looks like a psychiatric facility.

Behavioral healthcare is more than just the right furniture and safety features. Don’t get me wrong, those are very important, but as designers we need to look deeper than that.

What is the patient population? What is the therapeutic model? How will outcomes be measured? A hospital covered in solid surfacing on all walls and ceilings would be great for infection control, but not a place of healing. What are the limits?

It depends on the project, but as designers, our job is to bring our expertise to the table, but leave our preconceived notions at the door.

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