It wasn’t long ago that a trip to the hospital, either as a patient or a visitor, meant being surrounded by drab, uncomfortable interiors—all of which were seemingly covered in vinyl. Fortunately, recent advances in textile design, coupled with the ongoing push for evidence-based design, have finally allowed attractive soft surfaces into patient rooms.
Thanks to innovations like new antimicrobial technologies and integrated moisture barriers, designers no longer have to sacrifice aesthetics for safety. Color and pattern have returned, much to the delight of patients and staff alike.
“You’re able to make a patient room less institutional,” says Randy Rubin, co-founder of Crypton. “You’re able to add pretty fabrics, more homey fabrics, and you’re able to have visitors come in and feel comfortable—and the patient feels more comfortable.”
Infection control is paramount in a healthcare setting, especially with the Affordable Care Act tying hospital-acquired infections to a facility’s Medicare reimbursement. But it isn’t just important for administrators—it’s also important to patients, who often don’t have a strong enough immune system to fight off infections. The CDC estimates that Americans contract 1.7 million infections while being treated in hospitals each year, resulting in approximately 99,000 deaths.
As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so naturally any material that may help reduce the risk of infection transmission is receiving a boost in popularity. And while antimicrobial materials themselves aren’t all that new, the processes and techniques for achieving that characteristic are.
“One of the really key advancements in the last few years has been the idea of taking antimicrobial treatments and bringing them from the surface of the fabric as a topical treatment—where the antimicrobial agent was subject to migrating off of the fabric due to either abrasion, wear or cleaning, so that over time the antimicrobial efficacy was continuously diminishing—to where the antimicrobial agents are actually embedded inside of the fabric, where it is locked in,” says John Ronan, director of product development for CF Stinson. “It can’t be abraded off the fabric, it can’t be washed off the fabric, and so the efficacy remains constant throughout the usable lifetime of the fabric.”
Silver ions are most commonly used as antimicrobial agents, although a number of manufacturers have discovered that the same properties can be obtained from elements including zinc, chitosan (from crustacean shells) and copper.
“Copper inserted in materials is becoming a huge interest in the market and that’s applied in anything from fabrics, solid surfaces, textiles like upholstery and bed linens, to surgical masks,” says Ken Bowman, interior designer/interior design manager for ESa. ”I think this really is going to be one of the trendsetters that I’ve heard about in the last couple of years.”
With new antimicrobial elements and methods of application hitting the market, designers now have a wide range of high-tech textile options to choose from—many from the same manufacturer.
“Mayer offers fabrics that feature a variety of antimicrobial technologies. For example, patterns Punch and Guardian are examples of non-woven vinyl upholstery fabrics
that feature silver ion technology, whereas our printed polyurethane pattern, Quark, uses Microban Zinc for bacterial defense,” explains Lucia Kennerly, director of product development for Mayer Fabrics. “All of our fabrics treated with Crypton or InCase include silver ion technology
in their finishing formulations.”
Manufacturers are also answering the requests of designers and healthcare providers who prefer to specify healthcare fabrics with the least amount of finishes or additives possible. For example, Mayer Fabrics’ Spring Breeze line of privacy curtains features antimony-free polyester with no added finish or antimicrobial chemistry.
“Other [advancements] have to do with improved sustainability of finishes,” says Molly Alspaugh, interior designer for ESa. “Manufacturers are making changes to make their products more sustainable, have a longer life-cycle, be better on maintenance, and get away from chemicals and products that are being shown to be harmful to human health.”
This marriage of high-performance and sustainability is a recent one, according to Ronan, and is being driven by growing market demand.
“Historically those things were antithetical—if you wanted high performance you couldn’t have a low environmental impact, and if you wanted a low environmental impact, it couldn’t be high performance,” he says. “The market is basically now saying, ‘That’s not good enough, we want it all.’ That is challenging us here at CF Stinson, and the industry as a whole, to get more creative, more innovative, and try to deliver solutions that maintain and even increase the level of performance, but do so at the lowest level of environmental impact that we can possibly achieve.”
Part of reducing that impact has been the removal of harmful chemicals and elements like antimony (a toxic finish ingredient that has been used in bromine-containing fire retardants), perfluorinated compounds (used in stain and water repellants) and heavy metals, such as cadmium and hexavalent chromium (used in pigment processes). But the use of recycled material has also become more common as the availability of 100 percent post-consumer recycled polyester fibers and yarns has increased.
“As recently as 4-5 years ago, those types of fibers and yarns had very limited availability, and now they’re pretty widely available,” explains Ronan. “We can use that platform for a lot of these high-performance fabrics, and we can apply a lot of the types of treatments and features to that so that right off the bat we have a lower environmental impact than we would if we were working with virgin fibers.”
The good news is that as the healthcare industry continues to raise its expectations, textile manufacturers will continue to push the bounds of science and technology to meet those needs. That’s a win for patients, staff and designers alike.
“We’re looking for ways to make the fabric softer, for ways to make the fabric more resistant to staining and more cleanable, and for ways to increase the UV performance and fade-resistant performance of the fabrics. All the while, we’re looking for ways to continuously reduce the environmental impact of the product,” Ronan says.
“Certainly any of us would love to come up with the next revolutionary innovation,” he adds. ”I think all of us in the contract textiles arena are working very hard to deliver products that more strongly meet these requirements.”
Kylie Wroblaski is a former editor for BUILDINGS magazine, and has written previously about architecture and facilities management.