Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture
Adopt A Room
Location: University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital—Fairview, Minneapolis
Completed in: 2006
Client: Adopt A Room Foundation
Client liaison: Brian Schepperle
Design firm: Perkins+Will
Design team: Sandy Christie, Chuck Knight, FAIA, Elizabeth Rominski, John Spohn, Jerry Worrell
Area: 860 square feet
Estimated value of pro bono design services: $130,000
Chair, Adopt A Room Foundation, White Bear Lake, Minn.
My family spent ten years in and out of hospitals caring for my daughter, who suffered from acute lymphoblastic leukemia. During our treatments in Southern California, the Midwest, and on the East Coast, we found the same thing: rooms that were small and not set up for long-term stays.
Sometimes our family would spend sixty continuous days in one room. We did everything possible to make it feel like home for our daughter. We literally bought a van so we could load up everything from her bedroom at our house—Barbie dolls, pictures, everything. We would always transform her stale little hospital rooms into special places that were just for her.
From our earliest visits to doctors and hospitals, I was always told that the attitude of patients played a very large role in how they felt and maybe even, to some degree, how they managed pain and healed. It instilled in me a belief that every effort we took to make the hospital room a home away from home mattered. The fact that she was comfortable there mattered.
After I lost my daughter, I started reflecting on the frustrations and shortcomings of the hospitals where we lived for years on end. I felt it would be a disservice to my daughter if everything I learned from watching her did not benefit other patients and families. No matter how good the care is, it’s a very long experience. Fighting a disease is about more than the quality of care; it’s also about environment. David Millington, who had also lost a child, and I founded the Adopt A Room Foundation on the belief that, while we can’t control the illness, we can control the environment.
We enlisted architect Chuck Knight and his firm, Perkins+Will, to reconceive what a hospital room is, how it looks, and what it feels like. We did so by bringing together kids who were patients, their families, and a group of doctors, nurses, and researchers. There were about six kids in the initial design charrette, and all those kids are gone now, I think. We asked them what they wanted in these rooms, and we listened. Our goal was to think outside the box, with no budgets and no preconceptions.
The kids talked about really basic stuff, like having trouble getting in and out of the tubs. Many children’s hospitals have child-sized tubs in the rooms, but sometimes the kids can’t even lift their legs to get in them, so we decided to install showers. The kids also raised the point that the bathroom and bathtub floors were very cold, so we incorporated radiant-heat floors in the new rooms. Radiant-heat floors sound like a luxurious amenity; however, when an immunosuppressed child takes a shower, stagnant water is like a petri dish for bacteria. The heated floors evaporate water at a faster rate and dry the floor, so it’s less likely to trap bacteria and cause infections. The idea was a great coming together of the doctors, patients, and architects. The doctors and the researchers were particularly receptive to it because their goal is to keep infections down and keep the rooms as clean and sterile as possible.
One child, whom we lost, said, “I spend a lot of time on my back, and I can’t look out the window.” That statement made us wonder how hospital rooms could make better use of their ceilings, which are usually made of dropped panels. We ultimately included a giant dome that covers three-quarters of the ceiling. When children are on their backs and can’t sit up or if they are immobilized in any way, they can choose the imagery projected on the dome. At night, it can be a constellation of stars or even pictures of their homes. We did that just to give a kid who can’t look out a window a sense of control and something to look at to spark her imagination.
We started Adopt A Room with a question: “Wouldn’t it be great to design a room that kids didn’t mind going to?” Having been in countless hospital rooms for more than a decade, it almost seemed like an unattainable goal. But that’s exactly what has happened.
Senior Associate, Perkins+Will, Minneapolis
Our work for the Adopt A Room Foundation began when two fathers who knew our managing principal, Chuck Knight, approached Perkins+Will. The fathers were friends who had each recently lost a child to a lifelong illness. They were somewhat dismayed by the conditions they and their children had endured at various hospitals, and they simply wanted to ensure that future patients didn’t have the same experiences. Initially, there was some discussion of just putting a large TV or a video-game system in the rooms and improving the furniture, but we realized a complete redesign was in order.
The University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital—Fairview allowed us to take two semiprivate rooms and one private room and make them into two private rooms. The design process for the rooms was open to a number of people here in the Minneapolis office of Perkins+Will. Most of them had backgrounds in healthcare design and were eager to approach this project in a different manner than the standard work in that field.
As a part of our design charrette, we actually carved out a part of our office space to create a large-scale mock-up of a patient room. We did so to bring the children, their parents, and healthcare providers into our space and out of the environment they’re accustomed to.
During the charrette, a lot of ideas surfaced, like installing double beds in the rooms so mothers or fathers could sleep comfortably rather than in a chair or on the floor. One child said, “I’d like to paint my room with color,” which evolved into the design of an LED-based color-lighting system that was integrated into both of the rooms. The LEDs are programmed through interactive touch screens at the children’s bedsides. They can change the color not only of the domed ceilings but of the entire rooms. A major goal was to give control back to the patient or the family and let them make the room a place where they are comfortable.
Parents were telling us that, while their child was hospitalized, they still had to do things like pay bills, work, and try to continue their own lives, so we designed a home-office area in the rooms. It has computers with full Internet access. That’s an example of a very simple, common-sense design element that addresses an important need of the parents and families.
We also thought about how families interact within a patient-care environment. One of the simplest ideas to come out of this was to include a table—like a kitchen table—in the rooms. A kitchen table is an important place where families congregate, eat, play cards, and do homework. We had access to all the technology in the world, but the adjustable-height, 36-inch round tables we put in the rooms are used more than anything; they restore a sense of normalcy. The family can slide the bed to the table, allowing two parents to share a dinner with their child. It is such a simple object that could be added to any patient room at a minimal cost. And that’s the kind of design solutions we were looking for: small things that have big impacts.
Some of our ideas are already being replicated. The university has used the rooms as models in the design of a new children’s hospital, which is being constructed just across the river. We did not design the facility, unfortunately, but the project architects looked at our rooms and incorporated aspects of them.
This project has been widely circulated around Perkins+Will’s other offices across the country. Everyone throughout the firm is familiar with it. I’m usually the one who goes out and talks to different groups, sharing some of the thoughts and ideas we had when we designed these rooms. This was fundamentally different than any other project that I’ve been associated with. Because we were hired by Adopt A Room and not by a healthcare organization or the facility, we had a different client, and we kind of marched to a different band. That was one of the reasons why I think the project ended up where it did rather than as a more traditional design.
Ultimately, the idea of Adopt A Room is to get corporations, foundations, and donors to rally around the redesign of hospital rooms in their communities. We offer up our two rooms as models, and we hope others will emerge.
This is an excerpt from The Power of Pro Bono: 40 Stories about Design for the Public Good by Architects and Their Clients, published by Metropolis Books and edited by John Cary and Public Architecture.
Read the AIA’s pro bono services guide.