Outdoor Access

Researchers develop design tool promoting
patient access to outdoor environments

There is a growing body of scientific evidence underscoring the healing benefits of natural environments. Research shows natural settings with plenty of plants, sunlight, shade and fresh air have restorative powers that reduce stress, speed healing and promote mental and physical well-being.

Many modern health-care facilities are designed to take advantage of this phenomenon. They are bathed in natural light and overflowing with plants in lavish indoor and outdoor gardens. But according to researchers at Texas A&M University’s Center for Health Systems and Design, too many health-care facilities are constructed with inherent design flaws that actually discourage patients and residents from taking advantage of these natural spaces.

To remedy this problem, A&M architecture professors Susan Rodiek and Elton Abbott are working with a team of designers, psychologists, educators and health-care professionals to develop an interactive multimedia tool for teaching health facility designers how to avoid these design pitfalls and maximize the use of their facilities’ natural features.

The project, initiated by a $100,000 National Institute of Aging Small Business Innovation Research grant, specifically focuses on assisted living and long-term care centers for the elderly and infirm.

“Our research shows that the residents of these facilities typically feel better physically and psychologically after being outdoors,” Rodiek explained, “In truth, most assisted living facilities are already spending money to provide, design and maintain outdoor spaces for residents’ use. Unfortunately, they are not being designed in a way that anyone will use them.”

For example, Rodiek said, the facilities lack windows and doorways that invite residents to peer or venture into these green spaces, gardens lack paved walkways and benches that facilitate access for the handicapped, and gathering places like picnic areas, arbors or gazebos are sometimes located in uninviting or hard to reach spaces.

The multimedia design tool, a series of lesson modules packaged on interactive CD-ROMs, will be created with the project teams’ guidance by Arkitex Studio, Inc., a Bryan architectural firm where Abbott serves as a principal. The lessons will be especially designed for practicing professionals who lack sufficient time to study this rapidly growing design specialty. Employing interactive photographs, audio, video and 3-D visualization techniques, the modules will offer instruction on the health benefits of natural environments while introducing various design strategies that encourage outdoor use.

Tentatively titled, “Lifezones: Design for Outdoor Usage at Facilities for Aging,” the CDs will ultimately include six instruction modules covering topics such as entry gardens, walking loops, transition zones, nature parks, social places and activity stations.

“If you look at the marketing materials for almost all of these facilities, they have names that are evocative of nature and the outdoors like ‘Shade Tree Inn’ or ‘Arbor House,’” said Rodiek. “Their brochures and Web sites are full of pictures of gardens and they show people sitting outdoors enjoying themselves. That is not accidental. They know people enjoy nature.”

“We believe that facilities employing the techniques outlined in our learning modules will have a competitive advantage in marketing their facilities,” added Abbott, who along with Rodiek, is a faculty fellow in the Center for Health Systems and Design.

Phase I of the project will entail further research as well as development and testing of one of the six learning modules. Assisting this effort are Susan Pederson and Ron Zellner, of Texas A&M’s Department of Educational Psychology, who both have significant expertise in instructional design and technologies. The team is also enlisting the services of educational consultants Marcia Ory and Catherine Hawes from the School of Rural Public Health at the Texas A&M University System Health Science Center. Also consulting the team is a group of prominent outdoor space and design specialists including Diane Carstens, Clare Cooper Marcus and Victor Regnier, who together have written some of the most influential books on health facilities design; and Jim Moore, a renowned financial analyst in the assisted living industry.

Once successfully completed, the team will qualify to apply for Phase II funding that could provide $750,000 to complete the CD-ROM series and take it to market.

“This project is very important from a public health perspective,” Rodiek explained. “Without this transitional resource, billions of public dollars may continue to be spent each year on new facilities that inadequately meet residents’ needs for outdoor access, and fail to take advantage of this relatively inexpensive environmental opportunity to benefit the health of frail, elderly residents.

— The End —

January 10, 2005

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