A hospital that feels like home: Community as inspiration in healthcare design

January 16, 2020 Michael Moxam

Designing a healthcare environment that promotes wellness and healing—while generating a sense of community belonging


Visiting a hospital can be stressful. Most of us have found ourselves sitting in a hospital while dealing with intense emotions. Perhaps your wife just delivered your first child. Maybe your friend was just in a car accident. Or perhaps you’re about to undergo another operation for a frustrating, chronic issue.

The addition of any new building to a community has the opportunity and responsibility to create a lasting impact. In the case of a community hospital—a place where almost every resident will visit at some point in their life—the responsibility intensifies. How do you design a place for people experiencing a wide spectrum of emotions? How can we design an environment that provides comfort and support to all? 

I believe it starts with getting to know the context and the people of the community. Learn the history and cultural nuances that make the community unique. Sit in a local coffee shop, meet the people, understand the local geography and landmarks, and let the community’s spirit envelop you. From there, you are positioned to take a human-centered approach to healthcare design. You can reflect local elements and traditions of community to build something familiar.


At Cambridge Memorial Hospital, the pattern of the patient windows conjures the idea of light reflecting off the water of the Grand River.


I think about it as designing a new heart for the community. A place where people can gather and meet. A comfortable and familiar place. A place that encourages wellness.

Our team applied this approach to our design of the new diagnostic treatment and patient care wing at Cambridge Memorial Hospital in Cambridge, Ontario. The new wing, which recently opened, invokes the spirit of the rivers, the landscape and the four communities that form Cambridge—Galt, Hespeler, Preston, and Blair—to achieve a place that encourages healing and promotes wellness.


Local landscape and nature

When it comes to healthcare design, the use of natural light and orienting views of the landscape contribute to stress reduction and a sense of well-being.

Biophilia, the deep-seated human need to experience nature, has positive effects on hospital patients. Our work and research over the past 20 years has shown that daylight and views to nature improve the satisfaction of a hospital visit for both patients and their families. This translates to reduced stress and can lead to shorter hospital stays.


This rendering shows how Cambridge Memorial Hospital’s new patient care wing gently bends toward the river, to maximize sight lines from patient rooms.


The new wing of Cambridge Memorial Hospital (CMH) bends gently to the Grand River, maximizing views to the river and the landscape. Within the patient rooms, floor-to-ceiling _q_tweetable:To design a truly great hospital, we must capture within it the heart and soul of the community it serves._q_windows ensure patients confined to the bed have a ground to sky view and a full connection to their community. This relationship between patient and community surroundings is expressed on the exterior of the building through the window pattern designed to evoke the reflection of light off the river’s surface.

Two landscaped courtyards are at the heart of the new hospital. Their role in fostering an environment of wellness is twofold. Firstly, they bring natural light and landscape deep into the building. Secondly, they act as memorable landmarks for intuitive orientation and wayfinding as visitors navigate the hospital to reach their destination.

Extensive glazing in corridors offers frequent views of the river and the natural landscape.


History and tradition

Understanding local history and tradition provides an important inspiration for establishing strong community connection.

For CMH, the rich stone and masonry architectural traditions of the mills and churches of Cambridge had a strong influence on the design. From the moment of arrival at the new patient wing, the stone facade along Coronation Street draws visitors toward the main entrance and invites them into the main lobby and beyond to the large courtyard. This public component of the hospital is defined by stone, as is the public realm of Cambridge.


Subtle design techniques can subconsciously evoke feelings of comfort and connection for patients and families. This rendering shows a transparent bridge link at Cambridge Memorial Hospital, which echoes the tradition of the bridges of Cambridge and provides views to the Grand River. 


Another iconic element of Cambridge is the use of many bridges that connect the community across the river. These are the inspiration for the glazed link connecting the new patient tower to the existing patient tower.


Heart and soul

Hospitals are incredibly complex facilities, full of challenges around technology integration and planning functionalities, and it’s essential to get them right. We need to ultimately remember that a hospital is fundamentally about people and human experience.

To design a truly great hospital, we must capture within it the heart and soul of the community it serves.

About the Author

Michael Moxam

Michael Moxam is a vice president and Practice Lead for Design Culture with Stantec Architecture. He is based in the Toronto office.

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