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Last edited 13 Feb 2021
Wood and healthcare buildings
A calm and relaxing environment can have a positive effect on our emotional and physical health, particularly if it reflects nature. How can the healthcare sector take advantage of this natural healer while still enabling medical practitioners to deliver excellent care in a clean or sterile environment?
In recent years, the link between the indoor environment and health and wellbeing has moved firmly into the mainstream. For people suffering ill-health, recovering from an operation or in need of nursing care, creating a relaxing and healthy environment is important, aiding recovery and speeding discharge from hospital, and improving emotional wellbeing for those in long-term care.
A report by Planet Ark found that using wood in the interior of a building provides clear physical and emotional benefits similar to the effect of spending time in nature. These benefits are particularly significant in environments such as hospitals where plants and flowers may be prohibited due to health and safety.
Studies have demonstrated that simply having a view of nature from a window can have significant positive effects, such as shorter post-operative hospital stays and increased feelings of relaxation in patients at rehabilitation centres. In addition, following biophilic principles, the presence of indoor plants has been shown to lower blood pressure and heart rate and to increase a patient’s tolerance of pain.
A Japanese study carried out in a care home found that by providing wooden tables, chairs and tableware, the interaction between residents increased, resulting in an improved emotional state.
The reason wood has such a positive effect on human health is because it lowers the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activation. SNS causes the stress response; increasing blood pressure and heart rate and inhibiting functions like digesting, recovery and repair. When surrounded by nature and timber products, these symptoms decrease.
A 2009 report from the Commission for Architecture and Built Environment highlights how buildings can have a positive effect on health and wellbeing. Materials from sustainable sources can raise our spirits; and natural light, ventilation and views of nature help to reduce stress which is a barrier to healing.
Maggie’s cancer care centres are well-known for creating calm, natural environments that use the power of architecture to lift the spirits and help patients, carers and visitors to feel relaxed. The use of wood at Maggie’s Oldham is part of a bigger design intent to reverse the norms of hospital architecture, where clinical institutionalised environments can make patients feel dispirited. Meanwhile, Maggie’s Manchester provides a homely atmosphere in a garden setting that maximises natural wood and light.
Methods of construction for healthcare facilities are as important as design and materials, especially when an existing site is being expanded and patients are being treated nearby. Modern methods of construction such as offsite and modular building can speed up average build times by a third, minimising traffic, disruption and noise on-site.
The Dyson Centre for Neonatal Care at the Royal United Hospital in Bath was built from large cross-laminated timber (CLT) panels, resulting in an efficient, clean and quiet method of construction. The CLT panels and all the openings were cut to size in the Austrian factory. Once transported to Bath construction was completed within just three weeks. The walls are lined with wood fibre insulation, helping to create a comfortable, breathable environment while also improving internal air quality.
The Dyson Centre is the first UK clinical healthcare unit to be built using exposed timber surfaces. The centre includes wood panelling and plenty of natural daylight, and medical equipment is hidden to create a sense of wellbeing for patients and families.
After the building opened, a research team was set up to measure the effect of the new building on staff, parents, babies and the environment. Its results show the new building is quieter and more energy efficient. Staff spend more time in clinical rooms, parent and baby interaction has improved and babies sleep 20% longer.
The building is one of the first examples of the use of CLT in a healthcare environment; it demonstrates that the material can help to achieve a sustainable agenda, its surfaces can meet the requirements for infection control and it can create spaces which are calming and comfortable to users and staff.
Choosing timber for a building’s construction and interior can help to create a healthier environment, a vital consideration in healthcare facilities where people are recovering from illness or surgery. By designing healthcare buildings with natural materials, biophilic principles and outdoor spaces, and by ensuring they are easily accessible for patients, staff and visitors alike, architects can play a positive role in the health of the nation.
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- Biophilic design.
- Biophilic design and sustainability.
- Biophilic design research.
- Biophilic gym.
- Cross laminated timber.
- Green infrastructure.
- Green roof.
- Green space.
- Green walls.
- Health and productivity in sustainable buildings.
- Maggie’s Centre.
- Maggie’s Cancer Centre, Manchester.
- Modern methods of construction.
- Smart cities.
- Sustainable materials.
- The biophilic office.
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