Clear Vision: How glass & glazing trends revitalize healthcare environments

By Carolyn Blake & Penny Houchens | May/June Issue | MCD Magazine

In the past, the primary purpose of hospital design was to create spaces that ensured the most efficient processes and operations. That focus has shifted in recent years, however, and now places high value on a holistic approach to patient care, including features that foster an overall positive experience.

Considerations for staff well-being have also become a priority in design, although this can present challenges when patient and staff needs are in contradiction. For example, when nursing staff have high visibility of patients, outcomes are often improved. Occasionally, though, sleep psychosis is caused by noises from nearby nurse stations.

In diagnostic and treatment areas of a hospital, the most efficient layouts place staff areas and recourse rooms in the facility’s center, but this arrangement deprives staff of access to natural light. This tug of war between competing needs has previously resulted in sacrificing one best practice for another. However, through advancements in construction materials and Evidence-Based Design research, hospitals and designers can now provide solutions that yield optimal results for patient outcomes, staff retention, and high levels of safety for all.

Creating functional attractive spaces

Advancements in glass and glazing technology have been instrumental in creating both functional and attractive healthcare environments. The trend of open concept design has reached the healthcare industry, allowing natural daylight to penetrate further into the building and thus improving patient and staff well-being and mental health. The design structure can present challenges regarding acoustics and safety, though, and that’s where the utility of glass comes in.

Within nursing units, glass has been used to provide an acoustic barrier around workstations, while still maintaining sightlines to the corridor. Often, this glass is stalled with channels and butt joints to minimize any interruptions to the view. The industry has also seen a shift from centralized nurse stations to distributed nurse perches or hybrid approaches that encourage clinicians to stay closer to patients’ bedsides.

Minimizing disruptions, fostering privacy

Critical care units are designed with a charting alcove between two rooms, which includes windows, offering an unobstructed view of the patient and minimizing disruptions caused by constantly entering the room. Many health systems have reduced the use of cubicle curtains to avoid healthcare-acquired infections, so integral blinds are often used to provide patient privacy. Additionally, privacy solutions, such as electrochromic glass can be installed without corner mullions for better visibility.

In diagnostic and treatment areas, the use of glazing grants daylight the ability to extend further into the floorplate, while still providing necessary acoustic separation. When increased visual privacy is needed, translucent or patterned glass films can still support daylight transmission. Some specialty films provide a clear view of everything except digital displays, allowing people to be seen while protecting sensitive information from passersby.

Bringing warmth & security to behavioral health

Certain care environments, like behavioral health units, require physical protection for staff, but must also permit visibility of patients at all times. In the past, impact and abuse-resistant glazing entailed small panes with many mullions; windows might have been located above eye level or frosted, resulting in a cold, institutional feel. Now, however, newer materials including glass-polycarbonate hybrids, offer a more open and effective solution.

In supervised areas, impact-resistant glazing provides expansive views and connections to nature. In areas where patient privacy is needed, ligature-resistant internal blinds and impact/abuse-resistant glazing give patients the option of an outdoor view and some control over their environment.

Advancements in glass technology have removed many of the hallmarks that produced an institutional feel in buildings. For example, wire class in rated walls and doors has been replaced with clear fire-rated glass. Many egress stairs now have rated glass doors or even walls to encourage healthy habits. The evolution of exterior glass to be wind-resistant has revolutionized hospital facades in hurricane-prone areas to look open and inviting, but still protect the people inside during storms. Also, views of the outdoors in public areas support intuitive navigation and reduce stress levels among patients and visitors.

Works of art

Another visual aspect of glass is it can now be tempered, laminated, texturized, colored, and even custom-printed to creative artistic focal points, many of which are offered in rated and security glazing by glass manufacturers. With efforts to promote healthcare facilities as more welcoming and less institutional, glass has been used to both create art pieces and to protect them.

Artists have been commissioned to use stacked, cast, or blown glass to create intriguing, colorful, and timeless works for public areas, and LED lighting has opened endless possibilities for backlighting glass without needing a large cavity behind it. Also while glass may seem fragile, it is a durable choice when properly specified. Glass is used as a protective barrier for artwork in high-traffic areas, warding off potential damage and maintaining sterility. This added layer of protection makes it possible to follow healthcare protocols, while also promoting the sense of normalcy and humanity that many hospitals lacked in the past.

Today’s healthcare designers are invested in designing thoughtful, efficient, and attractive spaces and the versatility of glass makes this possible. As glass and glazing technology continues to evolve, healthcare environments will be more functional and inviting, helping to improve patient outcomes and staff well-being.

About the Authors: Carolyn Blake, IIDA, LEED AP, EDAC, is a technical practice leader and senior interior designer for Gresham Smith’s healthcare market. Penny Houchens, IIDA, LEED AP, NCIDQ, is a senior interior designer at Gresham Smith. 

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Written by Anne Holden