The University of Virginia Health System’s emergency department and in-patient bed tower offers an enhanced and dignified experience for patients and staff. The expansion connects patients and staff to the calming effects of nature, reduces environmental impact, allows for greater flexibility in use of space, and accommodates evolving medical technology and best practices. At the heart of the design approach are positive patient, family and staff experiences. Patients and family enter the new emergency department (ED) and bed tower through a landscaped, semicircular welcome area that curves outward from the building like outstretched arms. Once inside, they can marvel at a 28-foot-tall atrium with towering windows, which floods the space with natural light. Circular skylights spanning 12 feet in diameter, together with a constellation of recessed ceiling lights, lend a celestial feel to the space—as though one is looking up at starry sky.
A light-colored wood ceiling, juxtaposed with white floors and ceilings, creates a feeling of brightness and warmth. Ambulance bays are located on a lower level. An elevator dedicated to patients arriving by ambulance ensures they can be swiftly transported to the appropriate care area. Staff also benefit. Break rooms, eat-in kitchens, and other “back of house” areas provide daylight and views to the outdoors. For surgical teams who spend hours on end in an enclosed operating room, an adjoining glass corridor—also with views to the outdoors—affords them respite between procedures. This is unique, as in most hospitals, operating suites are located in the building’s core.
Among the new spaces in the ED are 12 secure behavioral health rooms that provide a safe, calming environment for patients in acute mental health distress and a dedicated pediatric check-in and waiting room to welcome the youngest patients with bright yellow couches, child-sized seating, a playfully shaped ceiling light, and views to the light-filled atrium. An interactive wall depicting a topographical map of the Shenandoah Valley invites children to play with built-in animal figures that can be slid along tracks. To maximize patient privacy, the bed tower was designed with curved walls that block direct views into the rooms of patients in the existing adjacent hospital.
The curves improve sight lines between medical staff and patient rooms and add an interesting aesthetic touch. Designed to meet high environmental performance standards, the building employs net-zero water design strategies—highly unusual in a hospital—including a 50,000-gallon cistern under the ambulance bay that captures gray water for use in heating and cooling, and several green roofs that mitigate water runoff. Metal fins on the building’s exterior reduce glare and heat, lowering energy consumption. Over 25 days in late February and early March 2020, 84 rooms on three floors of the new bed tower that were originally scheduled to open by summer were seamlessly converted to negative pressure rooms, to accommodate an expected surge of COVID-19 patients, and the flexible design supported their strategic efforts. The first COVID-19 patient was admitted April 3.