When structures have a healing effect

Urban life 16 May 2016 Esa Ikäheimonen

People are discovering that colour, art, music and access to nature are more than mere luxuries for the senses. Sense-stimulating hospital architecture is gradually gaining ground as research confirms that our physical surroundings can have positive effects on our health and well-being.

8 min

Imagine a building artistically decorated with sculptures and ornamental pillars. Inside are a bath house, a concert hall, an amphitheatre, a library and a sports facility. It sounds like an all-inclusive spa resort, but is actually a place few people dream about visiting – a hospital.

The above is a description of Asclepeion, an ancient Greek hospital built in 500 BC and considered to be the world’s first. A lot has changed since then. Today, hospital buildings tend to be uniform, monumental blocks located in the outskirts of big cities. Concert halls and amphitheatres are rarities in this functionalistic paradigm.

However, new research suggests that the Greeks were actually onto something when they built their hospitals on the idea of “a healthy mind in a healthy body”. Articles in scientific publications like the Journal of Environmental Psychology and Building and Environment have confirmed that factors such as light, colour, art, music and green surroundings can positively affect a patient’s healing process. Several studies demonstrate that patients placed in sense-stimulating surroundings recover faster than those in a typical clinical hospital environment.

A sense-stimulating hospital

In Helsinki, Ramboll Finland has taken these factors into consideration in the design of a new children’s hospital slated for completion in 2017. The hospital structure was developed through the meticulous collection of user information and prior research into the special needs – physical and mental – of hospitalised children and their relatives.

As a result, floor heating has been installed in areas where children are likely to sit down and play, and noise levels in treatment rooms have been minimised.

We chose to use massive structures that keep noise levels down, as children are particularly sensitive to noise. Children are also visually oriented and often notice things that we adults pay no attention to. We have tried to meet these needs by choosing materials, coatings and colours for all visible surfaces that are safe to use, easy to clean, and also interesting to look at and feel with your hands.

Floor vibrations are another major concern addressed in the new hospital structure, as they not only can cause patients discomfort but can also interfere with and thus jeopardise the operation of sensitive hospital equipment.

We tackled the vibration issue very early on and developed elaborate vibration design criteria for different functional areas, as well as studied the feasibility of various structural systems to meet these criteria.

A healthy mind in a healthy body

In the psychiatric department of the hospital in Esbjerg, Denmark, the architectural structures also reflect a deliberate effort to make life in the hospital as comfortable and mentally stimulating for patients as possible.

The psychiatric department is built on the principles of more transparency, light and easy access to nature. And the results speak for themselves: The need to coerce patients into treatment has decreased by more than 30%, and the use of physical restraint has been reduced by almost 70%, according to Mental Health Services in the Region of Southern Denmark.

A main driver of these results has been a new lighting system that simulates natural light and can be modified by the staff to suit the individual patient’s needs. All the bedrooms have windows facing green areas, and the department has been granted new sensory integration equipment, such as weighted blankets and weighted vests, to help calm patients.

Returning to our roots

Professor Regner Birkelund at the University of Southern Denmark confirms that the senses have gained a newfound significance in hospital architecture.

“Before the Renaissance, aesthetics was considered as an important factor in our mental and physical well-being. But in step with the Renaissance cultivation of the natural sciences, aesthetics slowly faded into the background. This tendency was further cemented with the development of modern medicine in the mid-19th century. Today, however, with the emergence of the new hospital culture, aesthetics is gradually regaining a role in our healthcare system,” he says.

While the Greeks did not separate science from music and poetry, instead having the god Apollo represent them all at once, we have a long tradition for favouring science over aesthetics. However, aesthetics seem to have finally caught up with science, now that it can be proven that sense-stimulating surroundings has a healing effect, not just on our minds but also on our bodies.