Sailing away

Design of children's care center incorporates Noah's Ark theme to inspire and excite patients

August 01, 2001 |

Fun. Exciting. Creative. Thematic. These are terms typically associated with amusement parks, entertainment venues and retail centers, not health-care facilities, right? Well, that's not so true these days. Just as the idea of incorporating "Disney-style" themes has caught on in the hotel and retail/entertainment industries, it is now beginning to slowly creep into health care, as the industry looks for ways to attract and retain patients, create better healing environments and break out of its stale, institutional mold.

For instance, in Tavares, Fla., a hospital incorporating a thematic play based on the seven days of creation from the Book of Genesis is slated for completion in October 2002. Designed by Baltimore-based A/E RTKL Associates, the new Florida Hospital Waterman will feature a tensioned-membrane roof system over the main atrium, and "when light passes through the fabric roof it is diffused, which is meant to reflect the first day of creation: when God created light," says John Castorina, vice president of health care for RTKL (see BD&C November 2000, page 40).

Rediscovering Noah's Ark

The latest — and perhaps the best — example of a themed health-care facility is the new Dr. Donald & Beret Mott Children's Center at Good Samaritan Hospital (GSH) in Puyallup, Wash. Providing therapy for children with nerve and muscle disorders, birth defects and developmental disabilities, the 42,000-sq.-ft. facility is designed inside and out to tell the story of Noah's Ark.

The new building unites the previously dispersed components of the hospital's children's care program into 30,000 square feet of program space and 3,500 square feet of outdoor activity areas and gardens. The facility contains exam and therapy rooms, a hydrotherapy pool, research labs, workshops, classrooms, offices and related administrative spaces.

"The hospital wanted something that was exciting and creative, something that would inspire these kids who have disabilities to come to this place week after week for 15 years or so," says William LaPatra, principal in charge with Portland, Ore.-based architect Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership (ZGF). "The idea of incorporating a theme also stemmed from the fact that this was a fundraising effort and it was part of the campaign. Initial themes included rockets, castles and forts — all those things that might connect to kids and that would connect to the fundraising donors."

LaPatra, who admits he does not have an extensive background in health-care design, says the idea to incorporate a Noah's Ark theme was conceived while reading a book on the subject to his young child.

"Architects usually resist designing themed buildings because it's often overdone," he says. "But I thought we could tastefully use this theme — especially the imagery of a boat — as a metaphor to design the building. We also wanted to incorporate materials and design techniques that were durable and that represented the Northwest region, with lots of wood, daylight, glass and large spaces. The boat metaphor allowed us to do all that."

The majority of the center's $8.6 million construction cost was paid through the fundraising effort of the Good Samaritan Foundation, the fundraising arm of GSH. The final $2 million was donated by GSH.

The centerpiece of the project is the building's northeast-facing exterior wall, which leans 8 degrees and is curved to mimic the hull of a boat (see "Transforming a wall into a boat hull," page 30). Cedar panels 3 inches wide emphasize the distinctive shape and look of the ark, while porthole windows and a dry moat further reinforced the theme. The building team even went so far as to angle — and detail to replicate a wood plank — the concrete foundation to match the boat exterior.

"The form of the section that alludes the boat is actually a sliver of a giant cone, with the apex of the cone being deep within the earth," says Eric Mott, senior designer with ZGF. "It provided a very simple geometric shape for the structural engineer, contractor and glulam fabricator to work with."

The boat hull structure is supported by 20 glulam columns, some as tall as 35 feet, and spaced 20 feet apart. The 8-in.-wide columns are tapered to form the distinctive slope of the hull and range in thickness from 12 inches at the top to 32 inches in the middle. All columns and beams supporting the hull, as well as the roof, are fully exposed in the interior space. "We really wanted to bring the look and feel of the boat hull to the interior spaces, especially the main treatment area where much of the therapy occurs," says Mott.

The orientation, size and weight of the hull section posed several structural challenges, says Jack Pinkard, project engineer with Tacoma, Wash.-based structural engineer Chalker Putnam Collins & Scott. "Being that the front of the building has a large surface area, we had to design the structure to resist the rather large wind loads inherent in this region," he says. "We also had to deal with lateral forces that stem from having the glulam beams sloped. And we had to resist these loads without affecting the architectural integrity of the building."

The solution, says Pinkard, was to anchor the boat hull section of the building to the rear portion of the building, which is constructed of load-bearing masonry walls. "When the wind blows against the front wall the forces are transferred through the glulam beams that support the roof of the boat hull into the rear portion of the building," says Pinkard. "We used standard connections that also provide seismic support."

Traces of the ark throughout

While the boat hull is certainly the most significant feature of the facility, LaPatra points out that the building contains numerous characteristics that play on the Noah's Ark theme.

The 3-acre site was sculpted to form "waves" around the boat, and patterned concrete masonry walls on the side and rear of the building represent the rock upon which the ark is perched. Moreover, zinc panels that clad the curved exterior of the hydrotherapy pool are meant to mimic fish scales.

A bridge transports visitors across the dry moat and into the building. In the lobby, the concrete floors are stained to natural tones and the walls are painted a blue hue to recall the earth, water and sky. Wayfinding devices are tailored to the center's young visitors. For instance, a variety of animal footprints sandblasted on the floors lead children to various destinations in the building.

The round room housing the pool provides the backbone for circulation in the building. Formed in the shape of a conch shell, the 25-ft.-diameter pool is flooded with natural light from a crescent-shaped skylight directly above.

Balancing act

One challenge for ZGF was designing the building to resemble Noah's Ark without making it "too kitschy," as Mott puts it.

"It was definitely a balancing act," he says. "For instance, I remember one of the hospital board members saying, 'Gosh, I thought this was going to look exactly like a boat.' We even struggled a bit with certain people wanting animals to come out of the windows."

LaPatra recalls issues regarding the glass and steel canopy covering the main entranceway. "Because of the climate and the fact that a lot of kids that are being dropped off are in wheelchairs, the client wanted a canopied walkway, so we designed it to contrast the big, wood ark," he says. "Their idea, however, was to have elephants holding up the canopy. We did go through a good-faith process of trying to find a way to create sculptural abstractions of elephants, but instead met them halfway by creating cigar-shaped glulam piers to brace the canopy."

Construction Costs

General conditions $745,000
Site work 1,350,000
Concrete 400,000
Masonry 250,000
Metals 200,000
Wood/plastics 1,300,000
Thermal/moisture protection 380,000
Door and windows 440,000
Finishes 815,000
Specialties 46,500
Furnishings 31,000
Special construction 85,000
Conveying systems 55,000
Mechanical 1,200,000
Electrical 820,000
Legal, tax, insurance, fee 482,500
TOTAL $8,600,000

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