Architect Georgia Burt tells how bad hospital experiences made her try to make things better with her work.
Words by Cathy Hayward
I was inspired to get into healthcare design after several members of my family died in major hospitals where the interiors were so depressing that the environment made what was already a terrible experience even more difficult. That’s just unforgiveable. That experience made me want to help create environments that support patients, their families and the healthcare professionals looking after them.
Designing for healthcare is like alchemy. You need a balance of natural light, views of the outside and good quality materials to create the first impression that this is a reassuring and comfortable place where people can relax and recover, the sort of place you’d be happy for your mother or your child to stay in. A well-designed hospital can boost a patient’s recovery without them realising it. Holistic healthcare demonstrates that people’s bodies are powerful. Good healthcare design allows patients to use their own body to help them recover.
A well-designed hospital can boost a patient’s recovery without them realising it, says Georgia Burt
Light is healing. Natural daylight and a view to the outside world is a powerful healer. In addition to designing spaces with ample light, it’s essential to use lighter colours to create greater light reflectance. There is a breadth of academic research that points to daylight reducing the length of hospital stays, improving post-operative recovery and reducing the need for pain relief. But we know that we all feel better when the sun is out. I don’t like to think of hospitals as hospitals, but as healing centres. Attention to design details such as turning circles of beds are important in healthcare design, but so is treating the essence of the person.
The colours used need to be described in one word: red, orange, green, yellow. Colours are often used for way finding in a hospital. Different floors, wards or departments might be in a different colour, receptionists might direct people to turn left at the green wall for example. Colour is a universal language; if a hospital is in a multicultural environment, English may not be the patient or visitor’s first language so the colours need to be simple to describe. At the same time, the colour needs to be strong enough to stand out to people who might be visually impaired. And the colours need to be memorable: people may be visiting someone sick or dying. They are often stressed, and can easily forget complex instructions.
With Brexit looming, I’ve started looking at materials made in the UK. We’ve been told by the European manufacturers that their prices will rise after the UK leaves the EU. The quality of materials in healthcare settings is very important. Synthetic materials loaded with chemicals can affect people with breathing problems and allergies so we stick to natural products wherever possible, so that you’re not compromising the patient’s health. Product sustainability is also very important: in hospitals, for example, a floor might have to last 10 years so the material needs to be durable.
Home is the best place for someone to get well in. Hospitals need to become more homely to emulate domestic environments. The challenge is that hospitals have to support thousands of people all with different tastes and styles in their own homes, so creating a homely environment that suits everyone is a challenge.
Everyone in a project has an agenda. The hospital management wants to create a great environment to recruit the best staff and deliver the best patient care. The facilities managers want a hospital that is easy to clean and maintain. Clinical staff want a place where people will get better quicker. I rarely need to justify why I’m doing things – the designs sell themselves.
It’s not just patients that benefit from good healthcare design, staff do too. NHS staff are angels and often unappreciated. Creating a space where they feel valued is a hugely important part of what we do. We’ve seen people applying for jobs on units that have been redesigned where no-one applied for years. If staff feel happier and valued, and if the facility allows them to do their job better, then patients will benefit.
I’m most proud of the work we did for a rehabilitation and dementia unit at Hillingdon Hospital. It was urgently needing refurbishing and there was a very limited budget. But by bringing together all the different stakeholders, from patients and their families to support and clinical staff, we created a beautiful new environment. We used colour to support patients with wayfinding, commissioned an artist to design vinyl wallpaper for behind the beds, created a sensory garden that could be used throughout the year and designed social and emotional spaces for patients and their families. It beat multimillion projects to win a Building Better Healthcare Award. Unless you know exactly why you’re spending money, you can miss the point.