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Designing the Neonatal Intensive-Care Unit of the Future

Designing the Neonatal Intensive-Care Unit of the Future

Architecture students had an unusual audience for their work last summer – nurses and hospital staff from the neonatal intensive care unit at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital of Albany, Ga.

Four student design teams spent the summer designing a neonatal intensive-care unit. The professor, Tahar Messadi, asked them to concentrate on designs that would promote family-centered care, while also considering circulation patterns, natural light, acoustical conditions and efficient use of space.

He also asked the teams to document the research that supported their designs, both from an extensive literature survey and from field interviews. There is increasing evidence that the physical design of health care environments affects health-related outcomes such as patient stress, sleep and even the transmission of infections.

The students’ research included a trip to visit Putney’s current neonatal intensive-care unit, which reinforced what they had learned.

“Before the studio class, most of the students had not heard of a ‘NICU’,” said Sheila Bosch, director of research for Gresham, Smith and Partners, a national architecture, engineering and interior design firm working with the hospital. “Upon seeing the faces of fragile infants, some of whom were fighting for their very lives, I believe it really hit home with the students that their work as designers is more than form and function – it can significantly alter the experience of those for whom they design.”

Each design team approached aspects of the neonatal intensive-care unit differently: the first team provided a separation of public traffic from the nursing and custodial traffic; the second team used a traditional layout of rooms but gained efficiency in use of space; the third team created open-air gardens to allow parents or siblings a space to step away from the stress; and the fourth team created a design that allowed open-bay rooms to be turned into private rooms.

“I was incredibly impressed at the level of sophistication of the presentations,” said John Fischer, vice president of Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, sponsor of this project. “Every group has come up with creative solutions. Nothing is perfect at this stage, but they’ve all found practical solutions.”

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