Project team:

Client: St Vincent’s Private Hospital, Sydney/AUS
Architects: Woods Bagot, Sydney/AUS
Lighting design: Steensen Varming, Sydney/AUS


Products specified:

Klik Systems

04. Jun 2014

Helping healing

Text: Alison Ritter
Photos: Tyrone Branigan

Worldwide, the health — especially mental health — of young people has been largely neglected until now, since this group is considered by the vast majority to be the healthiest of all. In truth, mental health problems affect about one in ten children and young people. Disorders are often a direct response to what is happening in their lives and include depression, anxiety and conduct disorder, substance abuse, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder – and only half of the young people who need care actually receive it. This is not a situation that can be remedied overnight, but every step in the right direction counts. The Young Adults Mental Health Inpatient Unit at the St. Vincent’s O’Brien Centre in Sydney is one such step.

The project comprised a fit-out of two levels in the St Vincent’s O’Brien Centre incorporating a 20-bed mental health inpatient unit, private mental health consulting suites and a call centre. The client, St. Vincent’s Private Hospital, was seeking to develop a world class private mental health treatment facility for young adults with early psychosis or mood disorders as part of its hospital operations. The development is addressing a gap in services specifically for young adults between the age of 16 and 30 with either early onset psychosis or major mood disorders, such as depression and bi-polar disorders, and providing a unique model in Australia – an Australian first. The lighting design team from Steensen Varming won the project through a tender process, and were commissioned for the concept and developed design stage. The project was procured as a “design and construction” project, where the contractor provides all the services and engages all trades, including design finalisation work to be carried out. The team from Steensen Varming were retained in a reviewing role during the construction stage.

After engagement, the lighting designers worked closely with the architects (Woods Bagot) who had a strong architectural vision for the project to ensure the lighting and architecture work together seamlessly and complement each other.
As a lighting design practice, Steensen Varming has a good track record and experience with health facilities, including mental health facilities, so had access to a library of guidelines, books and reference documentation on health/hospital requirements. As well as visiting other projects and learning from previous commissions, the individual designers in the team pursue their own research on the effect of light on health and attend conferences and read literature and research findings published on the topic. They were aware that designing the lighting for a mental health facility was a huge responsibility and that it was important to make every effort to prepare for this project.

The lighting concept is tailored to the user, creating a healthy and comfortable environment and facilitating orientation and way-finding. Warm white light was used generally – in particular in the patients’ bedrooms – to promote human comfort and demonstrate more similarity to home or hospitality environments rather than emanating a clinical atmosphere. In common areas such as circulation spaces, meeting points and multi-use spaces, concealed wall lighting and “skylights” backlit with neutral white or cool white light increase the perceived brightness and luminance of the room surfaces, creating a bright interior, enabling visual tasks, and increasing alertness. The surface brightness also helps to balance incoming daylight. Furniture-integrated lighting provides lighting to (task) areas where higher lighting levels are required and enables a higher level of individual control of the relevant environment. Wall recessed vertical striplights, in some cases as an extension of horizontal lines in the ceiling, are located adjacent to the doors to each patient’s room, marking the entrance to the individual bedroom and creating entry “indicators” to guide movement and assist in orientation in the circulation corridors.

Colourful walls and large-scale prints are used as part of the architectural language to create an environment suitable for the target age group. These features also facilitate orientation within the facility. Concealed wall lighting, strategically placed along the coloured walls, enhances the warmth of the colour and texture in the interior spaces and supports the legibility of the space. Vertical illuminance was considered key for facial recognition, which is important for appeasing patients who may be momentarily under stress or feeling unsure in a new environment.

However long a patient is taken into care in a mental health facility, it is a huge step for the patient to subject him/herself to treatment. Feeling insecure, anxious, unwanted or confined can worsen symptoms, but situations and dilemmas a patient has experienced at home are buried deep in their memories. The patient’s room in the clinic must therefore be a combination of pleasant and welcoming, plus comforting and unassuming. A view outside is crucial. All these factors together can lead to the patient making the space his/her own and feeling safe and secure – and special in a positive sense. Clean, pleasant surroundings, modern surfaces, a touch of colour, contact to the outside world – they all point to the room being specifically made to please the patient. Perhaps the first time in their lives that they feel they are the positive centre of attention and can retreat within their own four walls and feel good there, rather than hide away and, in a desperate moment, attempt to do themselves harm.

The overall aesthetics and integration of the lighting into the architecture or interior design was therefore also a key consideration in the design. The luminaires at the head of the bed are an integral part of the interior design language and furniture. Vertical surfaces are lit with luminaires close to walls and in concealed detailing, reinforcing the interior architecture and reducing ‘clutter’ on the ceiling while helping to reduce glare and cause distraction, which can be disturbing for patients. All luminaires are flush-mounted or in concealed positions with flush edges to reduce ligature risk, an important aspect in mental health facilities.

The project posed two key challenges. Firstly, achieving a high-quality, welcoming interior space and the functionality required for a hospital facility. The technical demands were met through the use of appropriate lighting equipment, such as flush-mounted luminaires for anti-ligature purposes, energy-efficient, low-maintenance light sources, luminaire locations (e.g. task lighting to achieve code compliance/required illuminance) and lighting control to meet the hospital standard/code requirements and specific hospital needs. The detailing and integration of the lighting into the architecture, attention to the lighting layout (e.g. wall lighting or patterns on the ceiling) and the selection of the appropriate luminous colours achieved the design intent to create a warm and inviting atmosphere. This challenge made the project very interesting for the lighting designers to work on, and the good collaboration with the architects, and the sharing of the same vision, made the process enjoyable and rewarding. A second challenge was achieving the desired design and quality under project procurement conditions (Design and Construct Contract) which limits the lighting designers’ input and allows the contractor to make detail design adjustments, such as the selection of alternative luminaires and final layout decisions.

To ensure the contractor achieved the design intent, within the short timeframe allowed for the early project phases the lighting designers produced performance specifications and technical specifications for each area, lighting layouts and equipment specifications as well as concept drawings which not only indicated the layouts, but also illustrated the concept through sketches and reference/mood images for the builder and electricians to gain an understanding of the desired outcome. All luminaire locations and mounting positions were detailed, at least in sketch form. The project won a World Architecture News award in the Healthcare Sector in 2012 as “an excellent example of patient-based design”. People with diagnoses of severe and enduring mental illnesses are also at increased risk for a range of physical illnesses and conditions, including coronary heart disease, diabetes, infections, respiratory disease and greater levels of obesity. This project showcases that a hospital space with its functional and technical demands and requirements can become a ‘healing environment’ through good architecture and interior design, and lighting design. Through the design approach taken, the spaces become less institutionalised, threatening and clinical, but more homely and welcoming.

To date the hospital has reported “terrific feedback from clinicians and patients alike”. A small step for man or a giant leap … Everyone of us counts and this is certainly a fine example of that maxim.

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