North Manchester General Hospital, Image By Sheppard Robson
Design concepts like those at North Manchester General Hospital are laying new foundations for the healthcare sector

COMMENT | Reinventing our hospitals

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Alex Solk, Partner At Sheppard Robson

The North West is embracing a new generation of hospitals, placing wellness and community at the heart of the design process, writes Alex Solk of Sheppard Robson.

Hospital design is ripe for radical reinvention. Traditionally, investment has focused on clinical advances and technology in healthcare, whilst the hospital environment — and the way it embraces new thinking — has often been overlooked. Of course, clinical advances are crucial, but we are starting to see a changing of mindset. With the scale of the government’s new Health Infrastructure Plan, we have a real opportunity for a significant reappraisal of what hospitals can be.

Increasingly, healthcare institutions are asking: how can our healthcare services be embedded within communities, rather than isolated, institutionalised facilities? How can wellness design principles, which are so prevalent in other sectors, reshape the whole hospital experience? How can the NHS and healthcare operators attract and retain the best staff?

For North Manchester General Hospital, a project laying new foundations for the healthcare sector, we seek to engage and address these questions through design. Hospitals, and many other public services, have operated on the same transactional model for years: arrive, wait, consultation or treatment, leave. While other types of buildings, from shopping centres to airports, have realised that purely linear and transactional facilities lead to underwhelming and foreboding experiences.

Our designs at NMGH work hard to create more convivial spaces, where patients and visitors can relax safely and decompress, both prior to and after their appointment, with the development oriented around a central “village green” space and indoor “hub”. Significant time and energy have been invested in the quality of these public spaces.

Outdoor spaces soften the edges of the large development, merge seamlessly into the indoor hub, while creating a less intimidating and institutional space that is integrated with the wider community. Once in the hospital a series of more than two dozen courtyards provide respite from the clinical areas of the hospital.

A more enjoyable, varied environment has an important bearing on NHS staff. Our designs re-imagine time in between shifts and on breaks. The importance of NHS staff has rightly been a huge focus during Covid-19; from rainbows in windows to clapping on doorsteps, we have seen a public outpouring of appreciation. While this appreciation is invaluable, it must also be met with better working conditions to make NHS staff feel rightly valued and well looked after. A radical rethink of the spaces they work and rest in could go a long way to achieving this.

At NMGH, we are working with users on the concept of high quality, common amenity space for staff outside their departmental area. It’s time to make siloed, windowless staffrooms a thing of the past. Our designs for bright spaces, with ample natural light and relaxing views, allow for quality social and recuperation time. They complement the other internal and external amenity spaces across the development, providing choice while enabling staff to refresh, which is necessary to deliver the best possible care. Utilising a holistic definition of wellness and its application to hospital design is essential now more than ever, considering the ongoing crisis in the NHS which is seeing more staff leave the service than join it.

Other sectors have embraced better amenities and higher standards of wellness, paving the way for changes in the healthcare sector. Why shouldn’t medical staff have a work experience on a par with someone working in an office? Wellness in the workplace is as vital to hospital design as it is to our offices. However, key design features such as maximising natural light and framing views need to be prioritised even further in hospital design.

While the primary focus in hospitals should remain on the technical spaces that enable care, this emphasis should not come at the expense of the physical and mental wellbeing of staff and patients. A holistic definition of wellness can lead to the creation of uplifting facilities that are flexible, efficient and cost-effective, with the skills of the architect at the heart of the conversation.Sheppard Robson

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It’s a shame the Manchester hospitals or the NCA do not incorporate and help improve other hospitals such as east Cheshire, increase their footprint, like they have already with Christie’s at Macclesfield. There is a lot of opportunities that places like Macclesfield could help with to relieve pressures on the big hospitals in and around the city areas.

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