The new Children's Hospital: Design elements combine to put patients, parents at ease
The main lobby of the new Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville -- "A lot of the time a hospital has to develop character," said Christopher Gessner, the hospital's president. "This one already has it and we haven't even seen our first patient here."
The Howard Hanna Healing Garden, which provides views of Downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, offers families and patients plenty of spots for private moments or story time.
The Eat'n Park atrium features a labyrinth on the floor and a two-story screen for showing movies and sporting events.
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Antonela Kasic has spent far too much time in hospitals during her young life, but on a recent visit she experienced something entirely new -- a transformation, of sorts.
As the 12-year-old Spring Hill resident emerged from the dark underground garage into the new entrance hall at Children's Hospital, she noticed how the butterfly-festooned murals on the walls changed color from cool green and blue to warmer hues. Once she reached the building's interior, she was surprised to feel her mood actually lifting.
"By the time I walked through it, I was feeling really good," said Antonela, who is waiting for her second small bowel organ transplant.
"It was very cool. I don't think I would mind going to the hospital anymore if I had to go."
And that is exactly what officials, architects and designers of the new 1.5 million-square-foot campus intended: a hospital for children and their families that -- almost -- feels like home.
But what a home: There's a 200,000-square-foot family resource and activity center, which includes a four-story atrium where movies can be shown, libraries and a healing garden. There are bright colors in the hallways, with names like "grape arbor" and "golden cricket." There are wood floors in the hospital rooms, contributing to the home-like environment.
Lighting is skillfully deployed -- soft, focused or even fun, as in the cafeteria with its cotton-candy pink glass pendulum lamps. Beds can be adjusted easily by the patient. Medical equipment is largely hidden. Windows in the room allow the child to look out in the hallway, or close the shades when he or she wants privacy.
There are shelves for toys. A library, full of books and DVDs -- and a librarian, too. Pantries for parents to store meals and snacks during their stay, and alcoves with desks, chairs and Web access so they can get work done, if needed.
All of this, though, wasn't achieved after paying a focus group of staffers, patients or parents to tell hospital officials what they wanted -- because, very often, people can't always say what it is they really want or need.
Instead, the hospital turned to a local design firm, fathom, which used techniques based in psychology, neuroscience, anthropology and architecture to come up with metaphors, visual imagery and insights that helped shape the new hospital's physical design, environment and overall branding message.
"When the average person can express only 5 percent of his or her thoughts consciously, how do you truly determine your user's needs, and more importantly, design to meet those needs?" said Christine Astorino, founder of fathom. The firm is an affiliate of Astorino Inc., the Downtown architectural firm headed by Ms. Astorino's father, Louis, which was hired as the architect for the new hospital.
To best determine what those needs were, fathom used a market research tool originated by Olson Zaltman Associates, a Harvard University-based company. The "Z-MET" approach recognizes that people think and communicate in complex ways that traditional interviews can't always capture, so participants are asked to construct collages with visual images that express their emotions toward the project.
Fathom arranged two-hour interviews conducted with 30 patients, parents, doctors and nurses -- including a 9-year-old girl and a 20-year nursing veteran -- and observed and documented them in various environments.
Interviewees were asked to design collages that expressed what they wanted to experience in this hospital.
One patient's collage featured a blue dog, "because he's sad and that's the way I feel when I'm in the ICU or just can't get out of my room."
One staff member came up with a collage that described "a monster-type tree with things sprouting out ... what this place feels like when you can't get your drugs, you can't get to dinner, you can't get to the bathroom, you can't get your supplies."
And a parent's collage included a maze, because that's how she felt in the hospital -- "you don't know what floor to go on, which elevator to go on."
"You had kids talking about everything from the color of pajamas and the height of the beds to what it was like to [share a] room with a cancer patient who might need a room with a different temperature than they did," said Ms. Astorino.
The vibrant color palette of the new hospital's exterior is no accident, says Ms. Astorino.
"We learned from our research that for these children, the hospital experience begins the minute they leave their homes. They approach the building from a distance and see the colors and feel positive and welcomed. It's a place they can emotionally resonate with."
Four themes that emerged from fathom's research were transformation, control, connection and energy, with transformation the most deeply felt.
"At a fundamental level the hospital experience is about transformation from an unbalanced to a balanced state," Ms. Astorino said.
The other themes play a supporting, reinforcing role: control because patients and staffers need to feel they have control over their environment; connection, because patients still need to connect with the outside world, and energy, because "there is an inherent need for certain types of energy and energy sources to get through the hospital journey."
Roger A. Oxendale, the hospital's CEO, felt that the metaphors guiding the hospital's final design were right on target, especially because they dovetailed with his sense that it needed a homelike environment.
"If you talk to a lot of parents and kids about their hospital experiences, they tell you it's lonely, that they feel isolated and out of control," but in the new hospital, the connection metaphor, especially, is clearly expressed, he said.
"If you think about the different places where we've got windows looking down into the lobbies, in the four-story atrium or main lobby area, or in the long views down hallways, it's all part of having parents being able to see other parents and staff around. Just to have a sense that you're not walking this journey alone."
People who use this hospital now have a greater sense of ownership, added Christopher Gessner, the hospital's president, recalling that a local resident whose children had been treated at the Oakland facility, "told me that now when she drives by the new hospital with them, they point at it and say, 'That's my hospital, over there.' We're building their hospital, it's like a beacon out there, with the color and the mix of the old and new.
"A lot of the time a hospital has to develop character. This one already has it and we haven't even seen our first patient here," he said. "They feel that way because of the colors and the way it looks relating to a playground. They feel affectionate about it, and if that's the case, mission accomplished."
First Published April 26, 2009 12:00 am