The Inside Story: Lessons From IIDA’s Healthcare Interior Winners

Published on December 21, 2015

One’s a large hospital in the heart of a treasured, vibrant American city. Another is a tony ambulatory center that embraces its serene California surroundings. There’s a bright and graphically bold cancer center in one of the rainiest regions of the U.S. and a 16-story hospital nestled in the mountains of China. Some facilities are modern and angular, while others are homey with subdued, enveloping palettes. They range in services from pediatrics to specialty care, from wellness to emergency, and everything in between.

What they all have in common is the status of “category winner” in the 2015 IIDA Healthcare Interior Design Competition. But that’s not the only thing. “The projects that stuck out were the ones with a great attention to detail yet with a design approach that was clear and powerful,” says competition juror Jennifer K. Kenson, principal and healthcare interior designer at Francis Cauffman (Philadelphia). “Details and concept were consistent throughout all of the spaces, from front door to patient treatment spaces.”

In other words, each project tells a story. The premise for these stories is roughly the same: The owner wants a building in which people feel comforted and cared for, where they can find their way easily, where the community around them doesn’t feel miles away. But the beauty lies in each design team’s vastly different telling.

Goal #1: Of the community

For this year’s group of winners, the desire for each space to feel “of the community” was a big theme. This directive takes on particular significance in a city as eclectic as New Orleans, and the designers for University Medical Center New Orleans (UMC), winner of the Community/Academic/Teaching Hospitals category, approached it from a fittingly unique angle: the theme of “improvisation.”

“Think of the way the cuisine, the music, the arts, the urban fabric, and the whole culture have formed,” says Janet Dugan, principal at NBBJ (Seattle). NBBJ and local design firm Blitch Knevel share the honors in the IIDA competition. “Everything about New Orleans adheres to the rules of improv,” Dugan continues. “There are very strict guidelines, and one is, we all agree to certain constructs and then you riff on that.”

The constructs, in this case, started with a group of key design elements and a bohemian color palette with lots of wild hues—but weathered with a patina that’s commonly seen throughout the city. “There are only a few very clear touches for wayfinding points, maybe one color that’s still brilliant and clear,” Dugan says. “But this patinaed background provides a comfort and a security within. And within that color palette we have a palette of texture. You’ll see that in the shadow imprints of some of the scrollwork on the patient’s headwall, in the signage, in the perforated metal panels. Nothing is quite clear and distinct, which is true of New Orleans.”

The key elements—“a folded plane,” “a precious jewel,” for example—were bigger design concepts that recurred throughout the hospital. Broadly speaking, interior designers working on different areas of the hospital started with these elements and the color palette (among other requirements), then riffed away. The constructs provide a common language, but the improv style allowed for different interpretations that keep the building as surprising and unique as the community it serves.

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