Designing for Well-being: Architects Navigate Comfort in Built Environments

Midlands-area architects specializing in educational and health care design often refer to a balancing act when making special considerations to support the delivery of these fundamental services within our communities.

Notably, these projects have considerable implications for the overall safety, security, well-being, and future of the individuals they serve and, more broadly, for our society as they advance or reflect of-the-moment trends in the built environment.

The characteristics of hotel, travel and tourism design are making their way into health care design, too.

“The inclusion of more ‘hospitality’ is the current trend, defined as ‘the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers,’” said Jeffrey Dolezal, principal at TACKarchitects. “The way that we at TACK translate hospitality is manifested in a few ways.”

First and foremost, he continued, wayfinding is incredibly important. 

“People feel much more comfortable when they have a sense of entry and flow into the space,” Dolezal added. “This can be done through the curated use of lighting, graphics, materials, wall placement [and so on]. These are things that we are extremely sensitive about, and they translate far beyond just health care.”

Pivoting to educational environments, he spoke to a sense of warmth provided by the use of wood materials and an abundance of natural, indirect light. These elements “put students and visitors at ease when entering a facility.”

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TACKarchitects has included these elements in projects such as a dental clinic that is nearing completion, which features a large, north-facing clerestory (or upper windows) to support an inviting environment for visitors, patients, and staff alike. 

“This may seem like a simple concept, but corridors that end with a window or deliberately-placed art piece are instrumental for people to navigate their way through an interior space, which can make them really feel at ease,” he explained.

Westside Community Schools Swanson Elementary School. (Courtesy of Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture/Dana Damewood Photography)
Westside Community Schools Swanson Elementary School. (Courtesy
of Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture/Dana Damewood Photography)

Designing for Engagement

For DLR Group Principal and K-12 Education Leader, Vanessa Schutte, the New Boys Town Education Center may very well be a lesson in designing for comfort, health, function and aesthetics. 

“Boys Town serves many at-risk students who have experienced trauma,” she stated. “For this reason, our design team kicked off the process by studying trauma-informed design and we’ve integrated those principles throughout the project.”

Accordingly, its design provides an appropriate level of privacy, visibility and connections to nature.

“As we move through the design process, we must recognize that we are designing spaces where students can learn and grow as humans first and foremost, with a blanket of safety overlayed,” Schutte said. 

Fundamental to school design, she indicated, is the creation of spaces that support easy supervision, compartmentalization and access control; for instance, all of the center’s new classroom studios feature glass along the corridor.

“Transparency allows students to feel comfortable entering a room because they know what they are walking into, simultaneously allowing educators to easily see what is occurring in their classroom and outside of it,” Schutte added.

Methodist Hospital renovation. (Courtesy of Holland Basham Architects/William Hess Photography)
Methodist Hospital renovation. (Courtesy of
Holland Basham Architects/William Hess Photography)

Interestingly, Schutte noted how many people think that designing for safety means eliminating transparency. 

“However, transparency is important for supervision, learning and culture,” she explained. “School safety relies on three factors: procedures, practice and the physical environment. During the design process, there is extensive discussion about the physical environment and the procedures that will be in place once the school is open.”

Schutte also noted the firm’s emphasis on conducting primary research while studying secondary research to improve learning environments and forward its mission of elevating the human experience through design. 

“Teacher retention and recruitment has become a focus for many districts and school design can play a factor in these efforts,” she said of another design implication; for instance, respite rooms for educators allow for teachers at the new education center to decompress. 

Overall, Schutte loves designing learning environments.

“It’s an opportunity for me to give to future generations,” she stated. “Research proves the physical learning environment impacts learning progress by 16%, whether that be positive or negative.”

On the Pulse of Health Care Design

While budgets and schedules may be initial drivers, Brad Jungman, director of health at Holland Basham Architects noted a successful health care project seamlessly incorporates financial goals with overall patient experience. As Jungman puts it, comfort and wellness for patients, doctors, nurses and staff integrate with an understanding of function and workflow. 

“So, the design of the spaces is inherent to providing and receiving care,” he summed up. “We consider a balance between aesthetics and budget, as well as maintenance and lifecycle costs, to create a lasting, durable and beautiful facility for years following project completion.”

Its recently completed “smart” apartment prototypes for QLI embody innovation in care, while Jungman also highlighted its work with Nebraska Methodist Health System’s 84th Street campus renovations.

“Additionally, it is rewarding to see the construction progress on the Nebraska Methodist Women’s Hospital vertical NICU expansion that is currently underway,” he said.

More to the NICU project, Jungman referenced how limitations to changing the floor plate left the team with one option: to expand vertically.

“We accomplished an efficient design to maximize bed count while considering the comfort for both patient and caregiver,” he said.

To its work with QLI on “smart” apartments, Jungman referred to designing a space to help those individuals that they serve – with full or partial paralysis – to regain independence.

“The design process led us to rethink the patient’s daily routine – to create a built environment with integrated, accessible, and hands-free technology,” he explained.

Overall, Jungman noted how these unique, sector-specific projects demand keeping pace with advancements in treatment, technology, and facility guidelines. Adding to their uniqueness further.

“ … they are often planned for and constructed within or adjacent to fully-operational patient care areas,” he said. “Each project type has unique challenges, whether a new patient bed tower addition, surgery expansion or an equipment replacement effort. The project’s overall plan should consider access, interim life safety and maintaining patient care in adjacent areas and the spaces above and below.”

To address competing challenges, Jungman characterized complete immersion into the patient experience as a “powerful tool,” with current information on development and trends in health care delivery models essential to designs that complement and facilitate such approaches. 

Rendering of Central City Dental. (Courtesy of TACKarchitects/Tom Kessler Photography)
Rendering of Central City Dental. (Courtesy of TACKarchitects/Tom Kessler Photography)

These projects also present great opportunities and responsibility to, Jungman said, “design spaces for points in our lives when we or our loved ones are most vulnerable.”

“By participating in focused dialogue and integrated project teams, we can be part of reshaping how health care in our community is delivered,” he added.

Communitywide Support

Todd Moeller, partner, is particularly proud of Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture’s work in learning environments.

“We have always considered comfort, health, function and aesthetics in our designs,” he said. “And, on the heels of the pandemic, there is an increased awareness of the positive impact good design has on users.”

He spotlighted APMA’s design of Swanson Elementary for Westside Community Schools.

“We engaged students, teachers and administrators when planning for intuitive wayfinding, safety and security,” Moeller said. “We thoughtfully designed the school. So, that almost every occupiable space has access to natural daylighting or borrowed light from clerestory windows. The windows are arranged with views of the surrounding arboretum where students can observe rabbits hopping by, the rain falling and leaves changing color in the fall.”

To this specific project, Moeller said the team spent a lot of time observing the neighborhood, speaking with neighbors and community members to learn what makes them proud about the area. 

“We took cues from the architecture of the surrounding neighborhood and the site’s location in an arboretum to inform many of our design strategies,” he said. “These details can be seen in everything from the design of the building to the experiential wall graphics we created to identify spaces and help with wayfinding and pride of place.”

Overall as it relates to learning environments, Moeller isolated several dichotomies, including the balance of durability and flexibility.

“For decades, schools were built with concrete or glazed block and while these materials are likely still in great shape, even after 50-plus years of use, they are not easily reconfigured, even as pedagogies have shifted,” he said. “We work with clients to decide what interventions we must take to make the existing structure work better for current needs or whether a new facility might be the best option.”

Another consideration goes back to safety and security – can it be ensured where there are windows and transparency? 

“We often hear concern about security risks associated with glass, but just as important is transparency and the ability to see into a classroom to ensure the safety of the teachers and students inside,” Moeller stated. “There are also many proven benefits of access to natural light and outdoor views that must be considered.”

In addition to achieving the “right balance” based on clients’ respective communities and needs, considerations also span the use of resilient materials – easing maintenance requirements while resulting in more sustainable designs, which include less waste and carbon emissions, according to Moeller.

Rendering of Gretna East High School, opening this fall. (Courtesy of DLR Group)
Rendering of Gretna East High School,
opening this fall. (Courtesy of DLR Group)

“Educational projects allow us to work closely with various groups of great people who all are working to provide the best possible experience for children and young adults,” he noted. “While listening and engaging with each school, we get to learn about their community, what makes them proud and what their aspirations are. The information we glean through this process guides us as we design schools and learning spaces that showcase their community, enhance their pride, and create inspirational and functional environments for learning.”

While there is a lot of attention on spaces that accommodate collaboration and group work, Moeller emphasized acknowledging that different people excel in different types of spaces and there is no one-size-fits-all.

“One of our challenges and opportunities is to provide a variety of learning areas. So, all students and educators can find the right furniture and type of space that supports them as they work to the best of their abilities,” he said. 

Moeller works by the approach of looking critically and creatively at trends that shed light on new ways of thinking before following them.

“APMA relies upon research, data and conversations with individual schools to determine if these trends are the best fit for our clients,” he added. “We want to be sure we design educational environments that use resources wisely and in a way that will position our clients for success today and into the future.”