The Grand Illusion

July 6, 2005
Custom ceilings can offer a new view of healthy, productive interiors

Bill Witherspoon, founder, The Sky Factory, Fairfield, IA, discusses how a custom ceiling installation inspired by nature can play a major part in creating calm, productive interiors.

Is there a trend among facilities managers to bring nature indoors?
Absolutely! We have done tremendous things with technology. Nonetheless, these [high-tech] facilities are [perceived] by staff, patients, and visitors as being very cold and very unfriendly. [In healthcare environments,] there has been an essential and critical emphasis on technology, but now there is an attempt to really attend to the whole well-being of the patient. And that means doing things a little bit differently.

Patients also appreciate the fact that management has recognized the need for this experience of nature and have provided it. A kind of loyalty develops. Healthcare facilities are springing up like mushrooms. These places have to compete, and the way they compete is on the level of patient satisfaction.

What are some of the benefits of choosing a unique ceiling?
Basically, the concept is to create an illusory but nonetheless powerful experience of nature in an interior environment. There are three key elements [for incorporating these types of ceilings into your facility]: First, [the system should be] completely compatible with standard ceiling grids; second, introduce a full spectrum daylight lighting system (6,500 degrees K.), either fluorescent or LED (the same kind of light used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder [SAD]); and third, use large-format photography and then print on the acrylic panels exactly the information seen by the observer from below. You look up and, in your mind, this is true skylight.

This triggers a psychological and a physiological reÚ­Ú­sponse of relaxation, well-being, and freedom. Imagine the impact of this for patients lying on their backs in an oncology center.

What are some of the different applications for a custom ceiling?
Along with healthcare facilities, they work in conference rooms (pictured above), call centers, hotel lobbies: There are all kinds of things we can do, and it is all up to the imagination of the architect, facilities manager, and owner on how they would like to apply it. It is not just a stunning design element; it has the power to trigger an authentic experience of nature.

What are some other trends in custom ceilings?
[Among facilities managers,] I see an increasing appreciation and understanding of the mechanism by which the desirable influence can be produced. A photo reminds us of something, but it is not the same thing as an illusion. We are taking the next step and trying to understand more deeply how people’s perceptions work to create a more powerful tool.

A magician can make a tiger disappear or saw a person in half. That is what makes magic: Our eyes believe it, but our intellect knows for sure that [what we are seeing] is not true. We form a relationship with illusions and buy into them. The walls and the floors are used up, but no one is doing anything with ceilings. It is fresh territory.

Regina Raiford Babcock ([email protected]) is senior editor at Buildings magazine.

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