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Designers in Residence: How a Multifamily Residential Design Approach Can Advance Healthcare Facilities

by Robin E. Tait, IIDA and Rebecca Cardamone

Since the early days of modern medicine, the relationship between healthcare and hospitality has been closely intertwined. After all, the root of the word hospital is the Latin noun hospes, meaning “guest or visitor”; and the word hospitality shares this root noun, too. Yet, the similarities between healthcare and hospitality extend way beyond word origins.

As medicinal practice shifted from the home to separate built environments, designers have contended with the challenges of creating spaces that advanced the science of medicine, but also provided a comfortable space for the sick and healing. Healthcare design has since evolved from creating sterile institutions to modern facilities with a residential feel. Now with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, designers are facing new challenges of balancing compliance with comfort. So, how do we keep that sense of home in healthcare?

In recent years, elements of hospitality design have been increasingly blended with those commonly seen in the latest multifamily residential design solutions, including those created by Bernardon. Multifamily residential communities are now providing much of the perks found and enjoyed in hospitality spaces: concierge presence, shared luxury amenity spaces, health and fitness centers, and more.

Multifamily and healthcare design have many similarities. They both address the sense of arrival and first impressions; the circulation of residents/patients; use of wayfinding and signage; balancing communal space with personal space; and using materials that are impressionable, soothing, and purposeful. Expanding on these similarities, here are ways that a multifamily residential design approach can enhance the design of healthcare facilities and the overall patient experience:

1. Making the First Impression

Creating a sense of comfort is a major objective within both the healthcare and multifamily residential markets. As healthcare facilities must often make people feel more comfortable in a typically uncomfortable environment, creating a calming atmosphere is very important. This need for comfort often begins as soon someone walks through the door of a healthcare facility. Let’s face it, healthcare environments face a stigma – the average person rarely wants to go to a hospital or doctor’s office unless they need treatment. Healthcare design approaches shared with multifamily residential design solutions can help reduce feelings of stress or discomfort. Design approaches regularly applied by Bernardon’s designers include:


Seating arrangements comprised of a variety of groupings and seating types. Utilized within both multifamily communities and healthcare facilities, we provide seating arrangements that address the needs of all visitors and patients: lounge seating to create a more welcoming sense of place; family waiting areas that are a mix of comfortable seating for adults and small-scale furniture for children; high-top tables and chairs for a café environment that may have access to WIFI and charging for devices; and lastly, traditional waiting chairs for those that may have difficulty with lounge-type seating. By combining these types of waiting areas, the design creates a less sterile and more welcoming environment.


Open arrangement check-in desks. Similar to the concierge desks of multifamily residential communities, check-in desks at healthcare facilities that have a more open arrangement create a stronger connection with patients. With both seated and standing-height areas to accommodate all patient needs, open-arrangement desks create less of a barrier (both physical or perceived) between staff and patient.


Reinforcing an established brand identity through visual materials. For health systems with multiple locations, establishing a strong brand across each location provides a consistent identity that can contribute to a sense of security regarding the level of care that can be expected. Visual materials can provide an aesthetic softness while still meeting the maintenance and cleanability requirements of the healthcare facility. Moreover, carefully selected artwork that aligns with the type of care at each facility provided helps to establish a connection between the patient and facility. For example, in a recently completed women’s health clinic, Bernardon incorporated large floral graphics to give the waiting room a feminine touch. This floral motif is not only an artful approach to a visually stimulating waiting area, but brought color and a sense of cohesion to the facility’s overall design.


2. Usage of Wayfinding and Signage


In both healthcare facilities and multifamily communities, navigation is a major part of both the resident and patient experience. Within the two markets, Bernardon looks to how people circulate through areas that are used in similar ways. Applying a multifamily residential design approach to a healthcare facility can create a more home-like wayfinding experience and will help residents and staff feel more comfortable.


A simple yet effective way that Bernardon does this is by applying colors and graphics to specific areas including waiting rooms, vitals areas, and exam rooms. By consistently applying this color palette to the same types of rooms throughout the facility, this creates a sense of cohesive design, and also provides clarity for the patient as they’re navigating the area. Typically, patients are escorted from these various areas by staff members; if a staff member needs to take a patient to another floor on a multi-level facility, having the same color palette for exam rooms gives a sense of comfort as the patient settles into the new room. Providing secondary and tertiary color palettes for areas like bathrooms and exits also reinforce this design approach.


3. Balancing Communal Space with Private Space


In multifamily residential design, the concept of “a room within a room” is steadily applied to shared amenity spaces. Our designers often create private nooks or “nesting areas” where residents can socialize privately, but still feel like they’re part of the larger amenity space. In healthcare facilities, this “room within a room concept” can be applied to a variety of shared spaces including waiting rooms, hallways, and work stations. Since people often spend hours–sometimes days–in healthcare facilities, creating a separate space where they can break away provides a place to recharge.


Regarding the patient experience, implementing a considerate design approach to the healing environment has also proven to be effective. This can be done by scale and by personalization. For example, increasing the size of in-patient rooms to accommodate areas for families during extended stays provides a way for loved ones to stay near the patient during the recovery process. The patient can remain in the room among friends and family, but not necessarily always in the bed, which humanizes the healing process. Also, personalizing the in-patient room is another way to enhance their experience. Providing designated areas or surfaces to display items from home, artwork, or even messages from staff and visitors creates a much more home-like atmosphere.


4.  Designing for Both Residents and Staff


While residents are the ultimate focus of multifamily communities and patients the focus of healthcare facilities, the respective staff within both of these industries spend an exorbitant amount of time at their workplace. Specifically, medical professionals at hospitals including nurses, residents, and attending doctors, work long shifts that can extend over multiple days. In 2017, The Atlantic reported that American doctors in residence were expected to spend 80 hours a week in the hospital with the average single shift lasting up to 28 hours.  With numbers like these, designing for medical staff as well as patients remains a priority among many designers.


For Bernardon’s multifamily projects, our designers regularly consider the staff when designing the workspaces within these multifamily communities. Creating dedicated breakrooms away from the concierge desk allows for staff to take breaks away from their desk. Although Bernardon often blends hospitality with residential design in our multifamily communities, we also want to ensure that staff members can maintain a balance with work and personal time when needed.


Regarding healthcare design, Bernardon uses this approach to serve to improve the work experience of nurses, doctors, surgeons, and additional staff. Applying conscious design elements to these healthcare worker’s breakrooms will helps them to better recharge before returning to their shifts. We’ve been incorporating lounge areas and break rooms that take advantage of natural light and provide views of nature. Sometimes, an outdoor staff area is included in the design. In addition, we’re introducing staff areas that accommodate different types of workstyles: traditional work counters; sit-to-stand desks; touchdown areas for quick documentation; and small quiet rooms to use for intensive work or personal calls.


5. Flexibility in Shared Spaces


With many people shifting to a work from home environment, the need for flexibility is more apparent in multifamily communities. Healthcare design can take a cue from this shift in focus, too. As telemedicine is being used more frequently, non-critical exams and consultations are being conducted from the home. When an actual visit to a facility is required, waiting areas are accommodating Covid restrictions by increasing space between seating and reducing seating in waiting areas. Within the medical environment, implementing barriers in shared spaces including reception areas and work stations. However, these barriers don’t have to be permanent fixtures and often, they are not. Permanent options are also available and can be designed to blend in with the existing overall space.


6. Using Purposeful Materials


Like multifamily communities, healthcare facilities rely on materials to make visitors and residents feel comfortable, relaxed, and at ease. From visual design aesthetics to tangible materials used in seating areas, the materials we see and feel within a space influence the overall experience.

In healthcare design, Bernardon uses selected materials to create a home-like atmosphere while still addressing concerns like infection control. Inspired by some of our multifamily residential projects, we continue to incorporate solid surfaces, smooth edges, and controlled lighting to create healing environments that are sophisticated but still welcoming. Cleanable vinyl window treatments and vinyl flooring that may simulate hardwood or stone offer a residential finish that’s still manageable to clean and maintain. Added artwork and graphics give a pop of personalization within the clinical environment.

Perhaps, keeping the sense of home in healthcare simply requires going back to our roots – the home itself. Elevating the similarities between multifamily and healthcare design is an innovative approach as the practice of healthcare continues to evolve in response to the current conditions of our world. Designing with purpose to enhance the experience of those healing, working, and visiting in these facilities, is a proven approach that Bernardon continues to apply to our design solutions in the healthcare market.

Much like the etymology of hospitality, the similarities between multifamily residential and healthcare design go beyond their roots, and can be elevated to improve the patient and resident experience. Oh, and the medical term resident? That has an etymological connection, too. The word resident, meaning “a medical graduate in practice in a hospital”, was first documented in 1892 and is derived from the Latin word residere, meaning “to settle or rest” – an experience that innovative, hospitality-inspired healthcare design can certainly help provide.


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