It's usually tough getting kids to go willingly to the doctor—just imagine what must go through their minds if you have to admit them to a hospital. Doctors in white coats; machines with blinking lights; endless corridors with a harsh institutional feel. And the bigger the facility, the more frightening the prospect can be. That's exactly the perception the Children's Hospital in Denver was trying to counteract when it decided to leave its former downtown site and build a new, larger facility at the University of Colorado Health Science Center's Fitzsimmons campus in suburban Aurora.
At the new site, "we had 1.4 million square feet of space, which can be intimidating even for adults," says Robert Packard, partner in charge of the project for Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects of Portland, Ore., which collaborated on the building with Denver-based H+L Architecture. "So we had to figure out ways to break that program down to make it more understandable for people—to make it less intimidating."
That goal was critical to the mission of Children's, which continually strives to transform an often-overbearing building type into a place that is approachable, accessible, and family-friendly. The intention was not only to create the most healing environment for children but to design a home away from home for families, many of whom travel long distances to this regional facility and stay for extended periods of time.
That translated into amenities that are not always standard in hospitals, including sleep rooms, kitchens, and laundry facilities for families; respite areas with mountain views; rooftop terraces; and visitor lounges. Topping the list of accommodations for young patients is a teen lounge with a large movie screen, iPod hookups, and a private phone booth.
Situated on 48 acres, the $560 million pediatric hospital projects a less threatening image from the moment it comes into view. Large program components are divided into smaller masses on the exterior, while light colors, a sweeping roofline, and broad, articulated glass walls relieve the visual weight of the façade. Even the site planning contributes to the cause. Roads and parking lots were kept at a distance from the building as much as possible, creating a "family-friendly zone"—a 6.6-acre landscaped buffer with walking paths, outdoor seating, a "no patient" garden for siblings, and spaces to enjoy expansive views of the Rocky Mountains.
The design team sought to imbue the hospital with regional characteristics of the Mountain States through the use of color and materials that speak to geography and cultural heritage. The idea: to engender a feeling of familiarity for patients who come from a seven-state catchment area. "We also had this notion of using materials that would generate a sense of optimism and hope," says Packard. Brick was mandated for the exterior, but to avoid a monolithic appearance, the architects used a compatible local brick and blended different shades to give the surfaces texture, depth, and scale. Metal sunshades and fritted glass help control sun and glare inside the building.
From the beginning, the architects engaged hospital staff and families in a planning process that explored how light, texture, shape, sound, and color could work together to produce the desired environment. The outcome is most evident inside the hospital, where a deliberate use of nature-related themes and an extensive art program were integral to creating a less stressful setting.
The designers took great care over the amount, intensity, and value of colors used throughout the interior. The result was a series of five color palettes suggestive of the region's landscape and native plants and wildlife. The "community palette" consists of bright, familiar colors that foster an upbeat mood. "It produces energy right away," says Sharron van der Meulen, an interior designer principal at ZGF. The "tranquil palette" combines muted greens and blues for use in quiet places such as intensive care units and the hospital chapel.
The centerpiece of the hospital is the four-story atrium that funnels visitors to the respective centers of the complex. Serving as the "public living room" of the facility, the atrium brings daylight deep into the heart of the building. Large images of birds, snowflakes, stars—even a maze—are embedded in the floor's terrazzo surface. Van der Meulen says the durability of terrazzo was very important, given the high traffic and abuse that the floor will bear. The design by artist Carolyn Braaksma is one of many elements of a comprehensive art program that weaves through the building. "There's this feeling of discovery—that you'll find something new every time you walk across it," van der Meulen adds.
Color and art also enliven spaces such as the waiting area in the outpatient pavilion, which is a spacious bay filled with daylight pouring through broad windows that open to mountain views. The area includes a wide assortment of custom, built-in seating.
Along the carpeted circulation path, a colorful "nature wall" with environmental graphics combines backlit image panels, acoustic fabric panels, and painted Masonite panels. The ceiling is finished in wood-veneer panels, with strips of cove lighting that add a rhythm to the space without being too harsh. Pendant lights add an element of playfulness. "We spent a lot of time figuring out where to put the money, because people spend a lot of time in these spaces," says van der Meulen.
Strict infection-control standards influenced many of the material selections, particularly in the patient rooms. Nearly all the rooms are single occupancy, a choice based on research showing that single-bed rooms outperform multiple-bed rooms in terms of infection control, noise, privacy, communication, and patient safety and satisfaction. Yet while these rooms are intended for just one patient, they are equipped with sleeping accommodations for two more family members, plus storage, a desk, and data ports.
To give the patient rooms a more residential feel, the interior design team collaborated with Designtex to develop six custom upholstery patterns. When the hospital's infection-control group vetoed the use of fabric (which transmits bacteria), the patterns were made in vinyl to cover the sleeper sofa and chair.
Initial research identified noise as another key generator of stress. To control it, the design team recommended a paging system that contacts staff via text message or phone instead of loudspeaker. In addition, sound-absorbing flooring and acoustic tiles were specified throughout the hospital.
Already, hospital executives are reporting that the operating costs of the Children's Hospital are going down, while patient satisfaction levels are rising. "I hope we are breaking new ground in that we designed a building that feels less like a hospital and is more for kids," says van der Meulen.
Project/Client: The Children's Hospital
Location: Aurora, Colo.
Design Architect: Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects, Portland, Ore.—Robert Packard (managing partner); Robert Frasca, Jan Willemse (design partners); Sharron van der Meulen, Terri Johnson (interior design principals); Kip Storey (project architect)
Architect of Record: H+L Architecture, Denver—Patrick Johnson (principal); Ken Bailey (construction project manager); Fred Buenning, Alisa Rice (medical planners)
General Contractor: GH Phipps Construction Cos. and McCarthy Building Cos. joint venture
Structural Engineer: S.A. Miro Inc.
M/E/P Engineers: Bard, Rao + Athanas Consulting Engineers (design M/E/P engineer) and Cator, Ruma & Associates Co. (associate M/E/P engineer)
Lighting: Francis Krahe & Associates
Landscape Design: EDAW
Medical Equipment Planning: CPI Group
Program Managers: Balfour Concord
Food Service: Systems Design International
Vertical Transport: Lerch Bates
Acoustics and Vibration: Colin Gordon & Associates
Security Design: Kroll
I.T.: Sparling and Rimrock Group
Art Consultant: Eloise Damrosch
Commissioned Artists: Duke Beardsley, Carolyn Braaksma, John Buck, Jim Budish, John Fielder, Larry Kirkland, Patty Maly, Jésus Moroles, Karen Story, Mary Williams
Graphics/Wayfinding: ArtHouse Design