Behind every children’s hospital project lies a design conundrum. To serve and save the lives of its occupants, the building must be machinelike: sterile and tech-driven. But a cold and clinical environment provides little comfort to young patients already enduring hardship and time away from home.
Partners Paolo Brescia and Tommaso Principi of Open Building Research (OBR), in Genoa, Italy, sought to resolve the conflict in their design of Pietro Barilla Children’s Hospital in Parma, Italy. Inspired by ideas in the field of environmental psychology, the designers, who got their start working with Renzo Piano, created a façade that engages its natural setting and brings warmth and ambient light to patients inside while improving building performance.
OBR wanted the outdoors to play an active role in the patients’ convalescence. “We tried to create, through the interface of the façade, a system that is able to catch the landscape inside the room of the patient,” Principi says.
The double-skin façade pairs a colorful exterior layer with a simple, performance-driven interior layer. The outside layer features a series of 14-meter-tall (46-foot-tall) aluminum fins, spaced a meter apart along the hospital’s north, east, and west elevations. The 250-millimeter-deep (9.8-inch-deep) faces of each aluminum fin are laminated in complementary hues, covering the full spectrum of a rainbow. When viewed from the exterior, the chromatic palette on the right sides of the fins shifts from warm to cool: red to purple to blue. On the left sides, the palette runs from cool to warm: blue to green to yellow.
About 1,000 single-glazed, security-laminated, tempered lites, mounted both flush to and recessed from the outer edge of the fins, reflect the changing display of trees and foliage to the patient rooms on the building perimeter. “This mirror effect is able to bring a reflection of the landscape,” Principi says. “This changing of the reflection is something you can appreciate also from inside. This [enables] patients to feel the changing of the light, the natural light, the changing of the day, and the changing of the seasons.”
In contrast to the vivid exterior, the interior façade layer may look plain, but it serves as the system’s cost-effective and energy-efficient counterpart. Black-painted plasterboard that covers acoustic and thermal insulation layers also optimizes landscape reflections on the building exterior. Unlike the outer façade’s single-glazed panes, the interior system features energy-efficient, double-glazed windows with low-E glass.
Brescia says that the two façades create an installation that “plays with the language of the surrounding landscape … and creates a connection between the new building and older buildings, and changes from one corner to another.”
The double-skin façade also improves energy efficiency by creating an interstitial air space for natural ventilation. “In the winter, the external glass?…?becomes like a greenhouse,” Brescia says. “In the summertime, the fins give a little bit of shadow on the [inner skin], so you can have a benefit in summer as well.”
The exterior fins were prefabricated by Teleya, based in Bologna, Italy, and installed by Parma-based general contractor Pizzarotti in six months without any significant challenges. “Any kind of delay would have been traumatic, because this was not just a hospital, but a way to take care of our people,” Brescia says.
By creating an aesthetically brilliant, cost-effective, and energy-efficient façade, OBR was able to resolve the inherent conflict in hospital design. Money saved on the exterior was spent on enhancing patient comfort and purchasing more advanced medical equipment inside.
OBR collaborated with Italian architect Sergio Beccarelli of Parma-based firm Policreo on the project. The hospital was completed in January 2013 for roughly $45 million—about $11 million of which came from Barilla, the pasta purveyors. Though building performance data is not available yet, the designers have received perhaps the best type of feedback, the approval of the doctors. “The new hospital is appreciated for the efficiency and for promoting … the sense of belonging,” Brescia says. “The families … appreciate the domestic and familiar environment that the hospital re-creates around the child.”