There's a revolution taking place in the design of
children's hospitals. And Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago is
at the forefront, with an eye-catching space meant to support and
uplift families. An added bonus: the design may even help kids heal
It started with a picture of a prison cell. Bruce Komiske,
in charge of designing the new Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's
Hospital, stared at the image in an effort to understand the
patient experience: what it feels like to be boxed in, stripped of
control, robbed of the basic sensory pleasures of light and
"The similarities are too real," the chief designer says.
"You get an identification number and institutionalized food.
You're by yourself. It's the most dehumanizing thing you can do to
At the new facility, slated to open in June 2012, Komiske
and a team of more than 1,000 architects, designers, administrators
and construction workers are trying to transform the hospital
experience for Chicago's pint-sized patients.
"What do you do to change how a hospital looks, tastes,
smells, feels, acts?" he asks, concerning the design process for
the hospital, which now is nearly 80 percent constructed in
In the past, architects designed hospitals simply to
deliver health care. A doorway had to be big enough for a bed to
fit through; spaces had to be efficient to allow for the flow of
doctors and nurses; the color palette of a patient's room was
industrial bland, never whimsical. But in the 1980s, evidence
emerged linking poor design to anxiety, elevated blood pressure and
increased intake of pain drugs-the very factors that keep patients
from being released and cost hospitals money. Hospital designers
began to rethink their approach and built the more family-friendly
spaces we use today.
Modern and experimental, Lurie may change the face of
children's hospitals once again. The design caters to kids' wild
imaginations rather than their sad circumstances. Imagine: a
5,000-square-foot indoor garden, a glass-floored treehouse, a
bamboo forest, a whale replica that hovers over your head while you
wait in the lobby.
This is not your mother's hospital.
The idea to build the hospital-the largest building
project in Chicago right now-germinated eight years ago at
Children's Memorial in Chicago's Lincoln Park. The hospital, ranked
as the region's top provider of pediatric specialty care, had long
outgrown its space and turns away about 200 kids each year to seek
treatment elsewhere. It desperately needed a new
Planners decided to incorporate kids' ideas into the
process, creating a Kids Advisory Board where 10 teenagers, used to
living within the walls of Children's Memorial, could consult with
the new building's designers. Board member Ellen Gordon, 17,
diagnosed with juvenile arthritis, has been in and out of
Children's since fourth grade. She believes input from young
patients is crucial.
"(The designers) try and think like kids, but they're not
kids so they don't know," Ellen says. "This is a hospital for kids.
Kids should be the ones telling you what you should do. We know
what we like."
Of all the design elements, Gordon most loves the Crown
Sky Garden, a space that the kids board asked the designers to
create. The garden was the brainchild of landscape artist Mikyoung
Kim who admits it was a challenge designing a garden for
"We couldn't create a lushly planted environment," Kim
says. "We had to be innovative while still capturing what a garden
is." Kim's unconventional garden hinges on faith that "kids can use
their imagination in a more abstract way." She used bamboo,
mulberry and black walnut trees, which don't pose threats to weak
immune systems. Rather than creating a freestanding fountain, Kim
designed a waterfall, contained between layers of marble walls, so
kids can marvel at the water's flow without being exposed to
Designing the garden was a lesson in what kids really
want, Kim says. The adults involved felt the space needed toys,
buttons to push and things to play with. But when Kim met with
children, she realized that thinking was misguided.
"The kids in the room raised their hands and said, 'We
just want a place that's an escape. We don't want the garden to
become a collection of things. We want it to be an experience.'"
Kim scrapped several ideas, including one to build interactive LED
lights into the floor, and created a space that was "more
timeless." For patients too sick to enter the garden, Kim built a
treehouse with a glass floor, so they can at least view the
greenery from above.
Judy Rollins, a researcher in children's hospital design,
strongly believes there's a need for artistry in hospital care.
"These kinds of things can distract people and take them to another
place for a while," she says. "Beauty does something to you. If
you're in that kind of an environment, you feel like people value
Something as minor as a tall nurse's station counter can
make hospital staff intimating to a kid, Rollins learned in a study
published last year in the Journal of Pediatric Oncology
She has experience on the other side of the equation, too,
as the mother of a daughter once hospitalized with heart disease.
When her 4-year-old had to spend a week in the ICU, Rollins wasn't
allowed to stay by her side. Restricted by visitation rules,
Rollins slept on the floor of the waiting room and could only visit
her daughter every two hours for 20 minutes. Today she celebrates
the fact that most ICU units have an extra bed for parents, and
hospitals have come far in accommodating families'
"It makes all the difference," she says.
Komiske hopes the new hospital's lobby will offer families
momentary calm amid the chaos.
"Parents want their kids' eyes to open up wide; they want
them to forget they're here," he says.
The team worked with Shedd Aquarium and tapped the calming
properties of water. Shedd donated an enormous fiberglass whale
replica that will hang from the ceiling, next to a curved wall that
projects moving images of underwater life 24/7.
To fund the construction of the new hospital-with a
whopping $915 million price tag-Children's Memorial Hospital is
using funds from Chicago's deep-pocketed philanthropists, several
massive loans and the pending sale of the old Lincoln Park
facility. The hospital's namesake is Ann Lurie, a former nurse at
Children's Memorial, and her late husband Robert, a real estate
tycoon, who jump-started construction with a $100 million
Is the cost worth it? New research says yes: Though
expensive on paper, innovative design may help patients heal
"Design is able to affect health outcomes for children,"
says Gillian Ray of the National Association of Children's
Hospitals. Organizations such as the Center for Health Design are
working hard to spread the word within the health-care field. For
the past 10 years, CHD has conducted research with children's
hospitals, revealing a strong link between simple features-larger
windows, better indoor air quality, noise reduction and
eye-catching art-and real health improvements, reducing the length
of a patient's stay, infection rates and medication
The sky garden at Lurie Children's Hospital is a perfect
"Not only do patients heal more quickly when there is a
garden in the hospital, but there's proof of lower heart rate,
blood pressure and so on," Kim says. "There's lower turnaround of
staff and doctors in the hospital, (and) a faster rate at which
patients check out. It's a win-win for everyone."
A new study by the Hastings Center states that innovative
design can save hospitals upwards of $10 million
Drawing from a palette of 50 jewel tones the design team
meticulously selected, walls are being painted with such colors as
aquamarine, exotic bloom and marmalade. The red ribbon will finally
be cut in June 2012, when all patients in Children's Memorial
Hospital will move to Streeterville.
In the coming years Komiske anticipates a powerful effect
on the overall heath-care industry, as hospitals start to grasp the
impact of simple design innovations.
"Adult hospitals are finally waking up and learning from
children's hospitals," he says. "(One day) we'll see buildings that
are less scary."
Shanika Gunaratna is a freelance writer living in Chicago.
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