Source:  Contract  magazine, October 2011

Source: Contract magazine, October 2011

Healthcare designers recognize that they have the power to implement design as a healing tool, whether to
improve efficiency and outcomes or to soothe anxiety through an attractive, calming environment. The Methodist Hospital Outpatient Center, part of the Texas Medical Center campus, is a 27-story building in Houston that accomplishes this with ease. Designed by Houston-based WHR Architects (see interview with David Watkins, FAIA, WHR's chairman and founding principal), the outpatient center houses state-of-the-art facilities within a hotel-like setting that deviates from an institutional aesthetic. For starters, its towering height and crowning "tiara" have rendered it an iconic part of the city's skyline since it opened, and that's something few hospitals can boast.
 
Responsible for the interiors as well, WHR was tasked with consolidating outpatient services—from cardiology to imaging—that were previously based in disparate locations, while beautifying healthcare design to elevate patient experience before, during, and after procedures. The design team rose to the challenge through extensive research, strategic planning, and thoughtful selection of palettes and furnishings.
 
Because the dense campus is home to massive medical buildings and very few through-streets to bypass them, the area had previously been difficult to navigate. By expanding the four-lane John Freeman Boulevard to cut through the base of the Outpatient Center, the Methodist organization and the City of Houston created an artery connecting Main and Fannin Streets, alleviating the area's traffic congestion. The project team used this to patient and client advantage, creating direct access from the street to the drop-off zone, main entry, and ramps to onsite parking and loading.
 
Programming using evidence-based design
Knowing that circulation and wayfinding are key to efficiency, WHR positioned the six-cab main elevator bank in one location that, on all floors, coincides with each level's waiting lobby. With the exception of the sterile
processing floor, every floor features a dedicated perimeter corridor for visitors to enjoy views and light, and to avoid colliding with gurneys. Dedicated visitor and staff passageways also ensure quicker and safer patient
transport.
 
With the help of equipment coordinator Genesis Planning, the project team outfitted operating rooms with cutting-edge technology such as a touch-panel control system that routes endoscopy, ultrasound, and x-ray visuals onto a screen—from and to any OR. The integrated system can even pull up infor-mation that's on the hospital network such as lab results.
 
Flexibility for the future was important to the client, so the facility was designed to obtain a hospital license should Methodist decide to house inpatient services. The building includes shell floors to allow expansion of surgery, radiology, and other treatment zones. Knockout panels and optimized mechanical and technological systems all contribute to future plug-and-play functionality. And most department layouts allow adjustment of square footage.
 
Deinstitutionalizing healthcare
"No one wants to go to the hospital," says Randy Kirk, MS, project specialist for The Methodist Hospital. "So let's make it feel a little less clinical and more like a comfortable home." Visitors encounter a tranquil atmosphere in the expansive lobby set by furniture, color, and material selections. Wengé-composite veneer covers walls in waiting areas. Instead of linoleum, floors are covered in flame-brushed granite, with carpet in the seating areas for intimacy and acoustical control. And rather than uniform rows of seats, small groupings of lounge furniture establish a cozy feel. To meet durability requirements, the seating is upholstered in polyurethane, with fabric used sparingly on backs. WHR installed a two-story, iridescent mosaic–tiled water wall by the lobby's escalators, where visitors ascend to reach the main elevator bank, public and dining spaces, and patient amenities.
 
The influence of hospitality is especially evident in the oncology department on the 21st floor. Cancer treatment is notorious for taking a toll mentally, emotionally, and physically on patients, and sometimes infusions can take all day. The design team lined the floor's windowed corridor with 10 private rooms and two group rooms accommodating four, equipped with sliding glass doors that still allow for light and city views when closed. Lounge seating in the corridor itself encourages socializing between patients and family, or even other patients. "This area was inspired by a relaxing seaside porch under a beach house's canopy," says WHR Associate Lori Foux, IIDA, who points to abstracted references including slatted-wood ceiling panels, light sconces, sheet flooring that resembles whitewashed wood, and sparkling blue-and-green-glass mosaics.
 
It's personal, not just business
A goal of this project was to add a high level of personalized care and services. At pre-registration, patients receive smart cards that contain their information for access points such as the parking garage, as well as for charging any purchases made at the center. Waiting rooms are "resource centers," offering multimedia, computers for online medical research, and portable audio devices ready to download preferred music. Based on the client's idea, exam rooms have tranquil-word names like Faith and Serenity, as opposed to a number, while active recreational spaces like the staff gym have upbeat names, such as Revitalize. Finally, the second floor's meditation area and massage rooms are quiet oases for patients to clear their minds.