HOW CHANGING BEHAVIORAL HEALTH NEEDS AND AWARENESS IMPACT INTERIOR DESIGN

Our understanding of how patients with mental illness should be treated has changed dramatically over the past several decades—and so has the design of mental health treatment facilities. The design of hospitals and facilities can be critical to a patient’s recovery outlook and meaningful interior design, along with a better understanding of diagnostics and care, can have positive effects on mental and behavioral healthcare within communities. 

This year’s IIDA Power Lunch at the Healthcare Design Expo and Conference in New Orleans on November 4, 2019, revolved around the many complex ins and outs of designing for behavioral health needs, from the changing stigma landscape to taking into consideration care, recovery, and compassion. The event, hosted by IIDA and sponsored by Construction Specialties, featured an industry roundtable, which explored the intersections of design, patient outcomes, and community experiences.

Here’s what the experts had to say:

Recovery and Healing

Best practices for treating and housing patients with mental illness have shifted from custodial care to person-centered recovery. This means that modern behavioral health spaces are “challenged to meet safety and security obligations while providing humane and healing patient spaces,” says Walter B. Jones, Jr., AIA, senior vice president of Campus Transformation. 

In order to create patient-centric environments, these facilities are making design choices that promote recovery, encourage well-being, and improve treatment outcomes. This can include everything from utilizing calming color palettes and adding elements of Biophilia to creating community and family gathering places that provide both patients and families with a welcoming and transparent treatment process. Staying in an inpatient facility is often stressful, but design can serve as a catalyst for enabling patients to take control of their own healing and recovery.

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New Focus on Amenities

Healing and treatment in behavioral health settings are often enhanced when a healthcare environment “helps to promote a sense of community and self-care and aids in motivating patients,” says Tim Lucas, IIDA, senior interior designer at Gresham Smith. This approach to healthcare means that giving patients their choice of various amenity offerings becomes a critical component of behavioral health facility design. 

Exercise rooms, art and creativity studios, and access to healthy food choices, the outdoors, walking trails, and group and individual activities allow patients a sense of empowerment and autonomy. These options can also foster family involvement in the wellness process, and allow patients to create lasting bonds with fellow patients and their providers.

Safety Aesthetics

Within behavioral health environments, lighting, acoustic, material, and furnishing choices are strategically made in order to incorporate the safety of patients and staff into the design and functionality. 

“Successfully reaching this goal is a balance between evoking positive emotions through aesthetics, while achieving individual safety,” says Lucas. Designers can use the latest research on the state of mental health needs to help them make informed and successful design decisions. These decisions may encompass: 

    • Patterning: Flooring patterns, for example, should be kept to a minimum as high-contrast and glare can be disorienting to some patients.
    • Wayfinding: Wayfinding throughout a behavioral health space should be clear and consistent to reduce potential confusion and agitation. 
    • Acoustics: Providing access to a quiet environment is important. Certain sound absorption materials can be used to address acoustic concerns. 
    • Lighting: The use of fluorescent lighting should be limited and replaced with warmer-toned LED lighting in order to create a softer, more comforting environment. 
    • Furnishings: Furniture should be selected based on the level of a patient’s condition.  In certain cases, furniture should be weighted and immovable; in other cases, lighter weight furniture that can be moved is beneficial. 

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Compassion and Destigmatization

Design has the power to humanize and dignify, and in order to help combat the mental health stigma landscape, behavioral health spaces today need to convey a sense of trust. “When a patient feels stripped of their personal dignity—which often happens upon entering an inpatient unit—we find, as designers, that the small details we incorporate can empower the patient and lead to a sense of satisfaction,” says Kimberly N. McMurray, AIA, principal at Behavioral Health Facility Consulting, LLC. 

Gone are the days of facilities with sterile, impersonal rooms with anxiety-inducing austere architecture. Instead, patients and their families are offered modern design features and welcoming, soothing environments. Incorporating compassionate design aids in the destigmatization of seeking and receiving mental healthcare, and the humanization of patients. According to Sara K. Wengert, AIA, principal at architecture+, interior design, coupled with activism and changes in public policy, “can have a profound effect on the avoidance of stigma associated with mental and behavioral healthcare for members of our communities, as well as for the people receiving care.” 

A Visit to the Dynamic New Gensler San Francisco Workplace

For interior designers and architects, designing a firm’s own workspace is a heady task. And when it is the flagship office for the largest firm in the country, with a practice in a city of limited commercial real estate inventory and increasing leasing costs, the assignment is even more arduous. But the Gensler design team in San Francisco took on the complicated challenge, and essentially reinvented its own office with a move to a new workplace. Earlier this month, I enjoyed a tour of the new Gensler San Francisco office with two of the firm’s design leaders, Collin Burry, FIIDA, and Kelly Dubisar, IIDA. An internal team of Gensler management, operations, and design leaders had input on the relocation process and the interior design, which was overseen by Dubisar.

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Seating areas, defined by shelves and a red lattice structure overhead, allow for casual conversations. The furniture can be easily moved or swapped out to essentially give new seating a test run in a real setting. Photographer: Rafael Gamo.

For 15 years, Gensler was located at 2 Harrison Street, with views of San Francisco Bay. But as the city’s real estate market and demand for tech office space evolved—in particular, Google’s footprint increased within that address—Gensler needed to find a new San Francisco home. After an extensive search in a city where the amount of available large-scale office space has decreased, Gensler selected three floors within the 34-floor 45 Fremont Street tower downtown. Burry points out that this office is a short-term solution, likely no more than a few years, and the firm will then select a more permanent home.

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With a variety of places to sit, designers have options for individual work or conversations without the need for booking more formal meeting rooms. Photographer: Rafael Gamo.

With that in mind, the interior design is agile and adaptable, enabling the Gensler architects and designers to have a workplace that also reflects the changing nature of office design. In San Francisco specifically, where startups and established tech companies alike are flourishing, this workplace demonstrates how a large creative company with a half-century history can be nimble and dynamic. After all, Gensler is designing many of the tech company offices, so the firm orchestrated its own space to echo the way work is accomplished today across both tech and creative industries.

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The firm implemented a system of display boards hung on pegs, allowing for presentations to easily be moved around the office. Photographer: Rafael Gamo.

The majority of employees work on the upper and lower of the three floors. The workplace floors are conceived as design labs—workshop-like environments in which teams are seated at a variety of desks adjacent to meeting rooms. With a mix of programming on the middle floor, Dubisar aptly draws an analogy to an Oreo cookie when describing the office. Amenities on the middle floor (all photos shown here) include a well-equipped kitchen and a number of soft seating arrangements that allow for casual conversations.

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A well-designed kitchen is a central hub for staff. Photographer: Rafael Gamo.

The adaptable seating spaces serve double duty—designers can place new and different seating and tables here, essentially giving the furniture a test run before specifying in a design project. Near the seating areas, a number of large boards displaying design work and concepts can be hung on pegs. The boards are easily movable from a design studio to this display area for presentations, whether it be internal discussions or meetings with clients.

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A model-making area adjacent to the resource library enables the workspace to be akin to a maker space for designers. Photographer: Rafael Gamo.

“The entire office could be considered a continuously running lab,” Dubisar says, “We love to try new things in order to better understand the challenges our clients face. We’re testing things that don’t exist in any other Gensler office, and it’s great to see the impact of our ideas.”


John Czarnecki, Hon. IIDA, Assoc. AIA, is the deputy director and senior vice president of IIDA. He is the former editor in chief of Contract magazine.

Perfect Timing

With the perfect combination of timing and significance, Leaders Breakfast Chicago will kick off the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the largest international survey of contemporary architecture. The day before the city of Chicago captures the global design community’s focus with the first architectural biennial in North America, IIDA Leaders Breakfast Chicago will boast some of the biggest names in design at their annual headline-grabbing celebration.

The Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, one of the driving forces behind the biennial, will receive this year’s Leadership of Excellence Award at the breakfast. The foundation, which makes project-based grants to individuals and organizations and produces public programs to foster the development and exchange of ideas about architecture, is supporting the biennial in partnership with BP and the City of Chicago. The decision to honor the Graham Foundation came from the IIDA Illinois Chapter’s notion that the collective institution is a powerful force in the expanded role for leadership.

Leaders Breakfast committee member Neil Frankel, FIIDA, of Frankel + Coleman, recognizes the connection between the missions of the Graham Foundation and IIDA. “[The Graham Foundation’s mission] encourages our membership to expand the discourse of design beyond the practice of interior design,” he said. “The demands of client service and academic compliance often can limit the definition of the role of the designer. The scope of the sponsored grants advances new frameworks for investigating design and its role in contemporary society.”

With the profession of design relying on the continuous development of new information, the Graham Foundation’s avid support of academic research and discussion of the designed environment builds upon those needs. This year, the Graham Foundation awarded almost $500,000 in grants to 49 groundbreaking projects that chart new territory in the field of design by organizations and individuals.

The honor of the Leadership of Excellence award will serve as the invitation to all IIDA Members to actively participate in the ambitious agenda of the Chicago Architecture Biennial exhibition and lecture hosted by the Graham Foundation. The similarity between architectural and interior design practices encourages a ground for collaboration and cooperation, and this award builds a platform of communication between the Graham Foundation and IIDA.

Accepting the Leadership of Excellence Award on behalf of the foundation is Sara Herda, the Director of the Graham Foundation and Co-Artistic Director of the Biennial. Attendees at Leaders Breakfast Chicago will be able to hear about her work with the Graham Foundation and her behind-the-scenes take on the planning of the biennial.

To coincide with the theme of the biennial, The State of the Art of Architecture, Leaders Breakfast Chicago will also feature highly acclaimed keynote speaker Kent Larson, Director of the Changing Places research group at the MIT Media Lab. Larson will discuss his current research, which focuses on four related areas: responsive urban housing, new urban vehicles, ubiquitous technologies, and living lab experiments.

The Chicago Architecture Biennial will run from Oct. 3, 2015 through January 2016, and feature groundbreaking architectural projects and experiments through exhibitions and installations. Join the kick-off of this celebration by purchasing tickets to IIDA Leaders Breakfast Chicago on Oct. 2, 2015, at the Hilton Chicago. Few seats available.

Translating Architecture through Radio

Frances Anderton’s background reads like a plot of a summer novel. Early childhood in England, renovating a casa colonica in Florence, studying the Haveli in Jaipur, writing for magazines in Los Angeles – and, it all leads to one of today’s most influential architectural radio shows. Anderton is this year’s recipient of the Leadership Award of Excellence at the IIDA Leaders Breakfast Los Angeles. As executive producer and host of radio show and blog DnA: Design and Architecture, Anderton’s path to the award stems from a meaningful past that has led her to becoming a preeminent voice on exploring what matters in our designed world.

Growing up in Bath, England, where her childhood backdrop was that of a Jane Austin drama, Anderton lived in Georgian houses that her father would purchase and remodel, creating interiors as modern of a style as possible in neoclassical houses. It was this way of living that sparked her love for design, giving her a strong sense of how one’s environment can shape the quality of life.

During her early years, Anderton spent a year in Florence, Italy, renovating a farmhouse. Later, she studied at the University College London and soon transferred to the Bartlett School of Architecture. She concluded that while she loved architecture, she “did not have the personality or requisite skill set to be an architect.”

Drawn to communications, Anderton found her way to becoming an editor at the London-based Architectural Review magazine. In 1987, her first assignment was to travel to Los Angeles, California, to produce a special issue on emerging architecture on the West Coast. In 1991, she moved to L.A. to become editor-in-chief of LA Architect.

On arriving, the region was shaken up by the 1992 Rodney King riots, which lead to the founding of Which Way, L.A.?, a public radio show hosted by the esteemed journalist Warren Olney. Anderton felt there was much to learn about how cities work from this show and went on to become the show’s producer while continuing her design journalism. In 2002, the two tracks merged when DnA: Design And Architecture was launched. She believes her knowledge of politics and current affairs gives her a unique vantage point on architecture and design.

Anderton credits her late father for her interest in architectural landscape and her success in the media sector of the architectural world. She believes that due to his lack of a formal architectural education, he would speak about architecture and buildings in a language one could understand. She feels she owes her “desire to ‘translate’ architecture and design to the public — through DnA and other archi-writing — to this exposure to very different ways of talking about buildings.”

In addition to offering her voice on air, Anderton writes for many publications and has served as L.A. correspondent for Dwell and The New York Times. Her most recent book is Grand Illusion: A Story of Ambition, and Its Limits, on L.A.’s Bunker Hill, based on a studio she co-taught at USC School of Architecture with Frank Gehry and partners, the architects of numerous landmarks including the Walt Disney Concert Hall.  Most recently, she curated “Sink or Swim: Designing for a Sea Change,” an exhibition of photographs about resilient architecture.


Learn more about Leaders Breakfast, the annual IIDA series event that celebrates design’s importance in the global marketplace. Upcoming speakers include writer Cheryl Strayed and Jonathan Perelman, vice president of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures.