October 13, 2020

Transformative Community Design: Stephanie Vito Co-Teaches University of Kansas Behavioral Health Studio

Effective public health infrastructure aims to improve not only the physical health of a community, but also its mental, emotional and social well-being. Public health is an integral part of society yet is an underfunded and underappreciated component across the country.

To showcase just how important public health is to a flourishing community, Stephanie Vito, a leader in our behavioral health practice, and Hui Cai, Associate Professor and Director of Research, at the Institute of Health and Wellness Design in the Department of Architecture at The University of Kansas, created a studio at the University of Kansas School of Architecture that challenged students to create innovative spaces that could offer more efficient, sustainable and smart healthcare.

The goals of the studio were to:

  • Apply new technologies and materials (e.g. smart and connected hospitals)
  • Explore new approaches of healthcare services (e.g. community-based care, adaptive reuse of sports facilities, delivering healthcare in unconventional locations)
  • Design for holistic care and promote both physical and mental health
  • Focus on green and sustainability (e.g. net-zero hospital)

Students were given three design scenarios to choose from for their projects, including the master planning of a transit hub with an adjacent community healthcare center, repurposing an old mental asylum into a Veterans Center and converting an arena built in the 1970s into an updated one with health and recreation services for the surrounding community. Each project included an option for students to customize the space program based on research to better fit community needs.

“Since health status is in large part predicted by one’s zip code, neighborhood design matters. Beyond matters of physical health, the status of mental health is undervalued in the design of places,” says Stephanie.

Adds Professor Cai: “The past decade has witnessed dramatic changes in many facets of the human society, especially in the healthcare industry. New concepts, new technologies and new services are emerging every day. These changes fundamentally altered people’s perceptions of healthcare, their lifestyles, and the ways of living and healthcare utilization. We wanted students to take all of this into account and design an environment that incorporated new technologies and promoted public health.”

Students Samia Mansour and Juno So chose to design a mental health facility with both inpatient and outpatient services as well as a homeless rehabilitation center in New Orleans, where homelessness contributes to drug overdoses, untreated mental illness and more. They chose a site in close proximity to healthcare resources, public transportation, restaurants, churches and other community resources so it was not isolated from the community. It included adolescent, adult and geriatric inpatient units, outpatient services with separate outdoor courtyards for each in addition to the homeless rehab center.

Stephanie notes, “This project goes beyond the challenges of creating a behavioral health hospital and addresses the challenges of creating a whole health center for the community. The generous entry plaza allows for placemaking to occur by all members of society. Strategically locating the Patient Recovery Mall as a “pavilion in the park” enables the resources within to not only serve the patients, but flex and serve the broader community. The geometry, programming and design of this project accepts all and serves all, acknowledging we all have mental health needs.”

Juno and Samia’s project was recognized by the Center for Health Design and given the top Student Award for Graduate Projects in the 2020 Healthcare Environment Awards, acknowledging the project’s innovation and design excellence.

“Having Stephanie Vito as a collaborative teacher changed my perspective on the behavioral healthcare projects. She has a clear understanding of the positive influences that built environments can have on the patients. She guided me to solve the design problems in better ways by giving me feedback regarding this concept. I now have a better understanding of how the community involvement, site context, anti-ligature, patient’s mental illnesses, and space programming can influence the behavioral health facilities.” -Juno So

“This was one of the most informative studios I’ve taken through my time at KU and I have been able to apply everything that I have learned in this class to my post-graduate job. From beginning the semester with an in-depth presentation of Behavioral Health design to the detailed feedback provided throughout our whole design process, Stephanie’s input truly guided our design while also encouraging our individual expression to shine through. Because of this studio, I can confidently say that I have a strong baseline knowledge of designing mental health facilities and all the intricacies that come with it.” -Samia Mansour