Pursuing Sustainability in Healthcare Interiors is an Education
When it comes to healthcare facilities, pursuing sustainability in the interiors finishes and furnishings is admirable. Some might even say imperative, given the mission of healthcare. But to go from saying to doing takes a lot of education at all levels of the process. From wining executive-level support for making the extra effort (and sometimes initial cost) to commit to sustainable interiors, to understanding just what "sustainable" would mean for the facility, to meeting the needs of the project through an enlightened supply chain, it all takes more than a bit of information gathering, processing and education.
To start with, there's defining what a sustainable interior is in healthcare. "Every facility has their own priorities and set of standards and you either have to educate them or find the best solution within the parameters that they have for their organization," says Debra Harris, RAD Consultants president and fellow of the Center for Health Systems and Design, Texas A&M University.
When considering sustainable choices, most people consider aspects such as recycled content or how local the product is. "People tend to go for the warm fuzzy feeling," Harris says. But sustainability can't be thought of in isolation, as a separate attribute. It's a function of durability, appropriateness for the facility and intended function, and has been proven by measurable attributes verified by qualified third parties and vetted through evidenced-based design. Criteria to qualify a product as sustainable can be established by the individual facility, or ready-made guides, such as LEED for Healthcare, can be followed.
Educating the Decision Makers
Gathering this depth of measurable information qualifying an interiors product as sustainable is necessary for the next step in the education process: convincing the decision makers and converting the naysayers.
"People scoff at it. They think that it's not important," Melisse Kuhn, project manager, facilities management services at the Portland VA Medical Center says. Or they might not buy into evidence regarding certain product attributes. "A lot of it is the scoffing from your audience, be it your colleagues or people you have to present this information to and gain their buy-in." To address this resistance, Kuhn says that education is essential.
"Education of the owner is one thing that probably needs a lot of work," says Jane Skelton, lead interior designer in the Nashville healthcare studio for Gresham, Smith and Partners. Not too many hospital owners are paying close attention to sustainability in healthcare interiors and the ramifications on long-term patient health, she says. And even when a more sustainable product, for example a no-wax floor, is specified and installed, facility owners and operators need to understand that choice and be ready to educate end users on the benefits and reasoning behind it so that historical perceptions of what is good and appropriate in a healthcare setting don't cause modifications to the product that will negate it's benefit. For example, in some Gresham, Smith & Partners projects where a no-wax floor has been specified, staff has been known to later wax that floor to create a shiny surface that is perceived as clean by visitors, but which results in an unnecessary source of VOCs.
Mockups and smaller projects can serve as useful ways to test out products, and educate end users. Theresa Besse, interior designer at Gundersen Health System, suggests using manufacturer-provided samples to help gain buy in from other facility departments on product selection and can help provide important feedback on the viability of a product in a facility. "I can pick the flooring, but I don't clean the flooring," Besse says. For example, flooring that was installed just before she hired on was not exactly loved by the hospital's housekeeping staff because it was hard to clean with the style of mop they used.
One way facility managers can use education to help sell sustainability in interiors is by using hospital initiatives in another area to help frame the discussion. For example, many hospitals are turning their attention to addressing the concerns around phthalates in plastics, which are known to leach out and could impact sensitive populations, such as babies in the NICU. While the IV bags in the NICU are not part of the FM world, the discussion and concern around exposure can be used to facilitate discussions surrounding interiors products. "You can have those same exposure discussions," says Beth Eckel, director of the environmental purchasing program with Practice Greenhealth. "One leads right to the other. Just the whole idea of safer chemicals because of your sensitive populations in hospitals."