We all know about the ability of nature to aid in the healing process, but at the Willson Hospice House in Albany, Ga., designers with Perkins + Will have harnessed natural views and elements to create a sense of refuge for terminally ill patients and their loved ones.
The 34,000-square-foot, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver facility sits on 12 acres of a 120-acre site, and is the first healthcare facility to receive certification as an Audubon International Silver Signature Sanctuary. The property hosts a variety of indigenous species, a walking trail, healing gardens, an outdoor chapel, natural pond and bird sanctuary.
Inside, the Willson Hospice House is organized into a series of three “pods,” each of which contain a central living area around which six inpatient rooms are grouped. Each pod has a kitchenette, chapel, sunroom, children’s area and outdoor terrace. Individual patient rooms offer window-seat beds for overnight visitors, double doors so that patient beds can be rolled outside, large storage areas for personal items, overhead ceiling fans, Volker beds and adjustable reading lights, and headwalls behind the beds to conceal medical outlets and equipment.
Ila Burdette, architecture and planning, and Amy Sickeler, interior designer at Perkins + Will, were responsible for taking Willson Hospice House from concept to reality. The two women have worked together for 20 years, implementing the pod concept into the world of hospice care. “People in assisted living and nursing do better in small groups than in units of 40 or 60,” says Burdette. “That’s working its way into more and more projects, and we’re glad about that.”
While hospices follow many of the same health codes as hospitals, the patient and staff needs are different, necessitating some shifts in design thinking. While some design decisions are identical to hospitals, such as 8-foot-wide hallways, sprinkler systems and handrails, “we need to be very tailored and appropriate to what’s happening with a person who is wrapping up his life,” says Burdette. “That means a bigger room, where they can spend time with family and friends. The family may come at any hour of the day or night, and the patients will stay for quite some time, so we need custom millwork for the family and the patient where they can store personal items. We don’t want to see tangles of cords and vials. We tuck them out of sight behind the headwall. It’s not about measuring the last cc of medicine; it’s about the patient being comfortable and taken care of.”
“These hospices are designed like little pods because we want the families to have their own places,” she adds. “They need to get out of the patient rooms sometimes, and we’ve learned that when you put a living area down a hallway, it’s not used. Psychologically, the family member won’t go far away from the patient, so we group the patient rooms around a living area. The doors open into that area and family is within calling distance of the patient. The family unit is knitted into the hospice principal.”
"Windows and natural light are very important so that patients and caretakers can always see the trees and sky. These things lift the spirit. We talk about this from evidence-based design. We don’t have a lot of scientific research to go on, but we know instinctually that it’s a good thing."
Using evidence-based design principals, Sickeler and Burdette strive to create a home-like environment in each hospice space via the selection of fabrics, furniture and décor. In the case of Willson Hospice House, says Sickeler, wood was an obvious choice. To create a sense of warmth and ambience within the spaces, the team used cedar for large timber pieces, poplar in patient rooms and for bookcases, painted pine in the lobby, cork in the children’s area and chapel, and bamboo for general flooring. (Patient rooms are floored with linoleum.)
“There is something about wood and nature that helps people feel better,” says Sickeler. “It’s soothing on the eyes. White is very difficult to look at for a long period of time because of the high contrast. Wood tones are warm and do not tire you out. All of these things have psychological and physiological effects. The pattern on the floor creates what is called ‘positive distraction.’ Windows and natural light are very important so that patients and caretakers can always see the trees and sky. These things lift the spirit. We talk about this from evidence-based design. We don’t have a lot of scientific research to go on, but we know instinctually that it’s a good thing.”
The project makes use of numerous sustainable touches, including recycled content, “which helps immensely from an allergy standpoint,” according to Sickeler, who adds that a significant challenge of the project was in working with water-based stains and the extensive amount of wood specified for the project.
“The challenge is [the stains’] inability to stay adhered. We had to make sure everything was dried out and that we could put our materials down and it would stick. That’s a challenge every designer faces if they’re doing green or sustainable projects with natural flooring or water-based materials. They are not as durable as the old caustic ones, but we make sure we always use the water-based ones.”
LEED accreditation also remains difficult for healthcare projects, due to incremental construction and renovations that often tie into existing mechanical systems. “If you want to meet the LEED requirements, much of your work has to do with using very efficient heating and cooling and ventilation systems,” Burdette says. “If you’re stuck with an older system, it’s very hard to do what you need to do to get up to those standards. The nice thing about a hospice is that it’s almost always a free-standing building, so you’ve got a clean slate, it’s not that many square feet, and you can design your system so that it really produces some energy savings.”
Thanks to its bucolic setting, Willson Hospice House has become more than a patient-care facility for Albany; master gardeners make frequent visits to study the plant life on site, as have Boy Scout troops and other community organizations.
“We hope that this will give people the idea that hospice is a good thing to do, the right thing to do and a healthful thing,” says Burdette. “I would really like to see more hospices able to find some part of what they have—in this case, it was the campus—to tie into the heart of the towns and cities where they work, so that they take away some of the uncertainties and fears surrounding the program. Hospice is a part of the community, not something to be afraid of. The biggest thing they’re doing in Albany is getting across the idea that this is a natural part of life.”