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
“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
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
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.