When the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health opened in 2009, it was praised for state-of-the-art programming and dedication to researching neurodegenerative disease.
The next thunder of accolades went to its Frank Gehry-designed building: The sloping, stainless shell structure is composed of anomalous windows and 18,000 tiles that pop up as a warped assemblage of structures at the edge of Symphony Park.
It’s the clinic’s patient care-oriented interiors, however, that have had a more profound effect on those it serves, helping illustrate the benefits of a well-designed health institution. Gehry, along with Larry Ruvo, the center’s founder, sought solutions to better accommodate visitors with neurodegenerative issues, making its minimalist interior with curvilinear lines, punctuations of color and calming organic shapes a pursuit beyond aesthetics.
Curved hallways reduce confusion and the potential of getting lost, and floor-to-ceiling natural lighting creates a sense of warmth. Indirect lighting helps prevent patients from becoming transfixed. There is an absence of shadows that could confuse or frighten, as well as other potential environmental triggers.
But when patients leave the center, they return to the pitfalls of traditional design, says Dr. Dylan Wint, a researcher at the clinic and chair for brain health education.
“The primary issue is that people don’t spend most of their time in health care. They’re in their homes, offices, other places,” Wint says. “We need to be thoughtful in designing our spaces. We have the expertise of knowing what patients go through, knowing the typical neurological problems and the ability to respond to [them] with solutions.”
In seeking better remedies, the clinic teamed up with UNLV to launch a new Master of Healthcare Interior Design Program through the School of Architecture. The two-year cross-disciplinary program, launched this August, follows a series of health care design courses that began in partnership with the Cleveland Clinic four years ago as part of the university’s undergraduate interior architecture and design track.
“About 12 years go, we began offering courses in the aging project, focusing more on retirement communities,” says professor Attila Lawrence, who helped establish and now heads the new program. “We’ve found that 80 percent of people in their later years want to stay in their own homes. If the environment is challenging you to manage your condition, you have to go into an institution. What we can do is design an environment to match the capabilities of people.”
Lawrence, who recently completed two years of funded academic research involving neuroscientific approach to design, says thoughtful interiors can not only prevent potential falls and address problems related to social isolation (such as acoustics), but also promote cognitive neurological health. Buildings can encourage walking or ensure natural light orientation is present. Research, he and Wint say, has shown that falls can be reduced through full-spectrum lighting, which is the equivalent of daylight around noontime. In addition, placement of cupboards and cabinets at eye level and none below waist level also helps reduce falling in patients with Parkinson’s disease. And just how important is lighting in one’s space? Professionally designed lighting can even help treat depression.
“The best care is in the home environment, and the most practical way to accommodate someone is to improve that environment,” Lawrence says. “The 21st century is so much about not how much you know, but how you’re going to use that knowledge. And the environment is far more important than people realize.”