Behavioral health designer Stephanie Vito was featured in the latest SPACES Podcast episode, “Behavioral & Mental Health Facilities.” Stephanie discussed what sets behavioral health facilities apart from standard hospital environments, how changes in society have changed mental health care spaces and the challenges that still exist when designing these spaces and more.
The SPACES Podcast explores various aspects of the built environment each episode—from football stadiums to airports to net zero energy buildings—and aims to highlight how design and construction has affected society throughout history.
On differences between behavioral health facilities and medical hospitals: Behavioral health is different than what you might think of for a medical hospital. A couple big differences: the ambulatory nature of the patients, so rather than designing around patients being in their rooms like in a medical hospital, the facilities are designed more around ambulatory patients, to encourage them to be up and about during the day so they can be receiving care and treatment and engaging in different social activities. So the bedroom itself just becomes a sleeping, nighttime space and it’s more about the daytime and treatment spaces. Another difference is on the delivery of medication and food to inpatient mental health unit versus a hospital. In a medical hospital your medication and food is brought right to you in your room. In behavioral health, patients will be out in a group room throughout the day and participate in group dining almost cafeteria style.
On how she got into behavioral health design: Even as an architectural graduate, it wasn’t something that came to mind. Until several years ago I didn’t even know behavioral health architecture existed. When I came to CannonDesign, in Buffalo they had a behavioral health studio and the need when I started was in behavioral healthcare projects and I just really took to it and the nuance that’s required, the level of knowledge down to door hardware is pretty interesting to me so I’ve stuck with it.
On biggest challenges hospitals face: There’s a lot of aging infrastructure on campuses that is a challenge because not only are they trying to deliver care in an older facility, but then their operating expenses are also a lot more so they’re not able to maximize treatment like they could if they were in an updated more efficient facility. A lot of the older facilities are on giant campuses in really rural areas. So they might have 20-30 buildings dispersed over the campus and trying to keep all those buildings in really good condition is time consuming, energy consuming, money consuming. A lot of the campuses are looking for consolidation right now, it’s a big thing we’re seeing. They’re looking to integrated all the services they provide into one or two large buildings and decommission buildings that are outdated and don’t allow clinicians to deliver good care.
On reducing depression and anxiety symptoms in behavioral health facilities: One of my pet peeves is too much beige. I encourage moving away from beige because there are a lot more enjoyable colors. It’s been proven that daylight and access to nature help with mood, help with calming sensations and decrease average length of stay. For depression and anxiety and reducing stress, something we try to do to help is access to nature and wayfinding. The easier it is for patients to move through a facility, the more clear it is, even different graphics on the entryways to the units so they have some identity. I’m in the yellow flower unit or purple flower unit, that helps them know they’re in the right spot, it really reduces stress while they’re in the facility. And then having spaces outside like outdoor classrooms or recreation fields or a small garden, those are all elements that can help give space to breathe and help with some of these diagnoses.