Guiding the design of hospitals as supportive spaces


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Architectural practice Lyons worked with University of Melbourne researchers to develop guidelines for designing hospitals that support the health and wellbeing of patients, caregivers and staff.

Key points

  • Lyons partnered with the University of Melbourne to understand how hospital design influences people, especially children.
  • The partners looked at how children, their families and hospital staff used different design features and perceived their benefits.
  • The resulting guidelines will contribute to the evidence-based design of hospitals and healthcare facilities.

The outcome

Guidelines for designing hospitals that contribute to the wellbeing of patients and their families have been developed by Melbourne-based architectural practice Lyons in partnership with the University of Melbourne.

The research team assessed the benefits of particular design features in two children’s hospitals. They focused on distraction (such as nature and artwork), wayfinding and social spaces. They looked not only at how people used the features, but also at how they perceived their benefits.

For example, the team found that animal enclosures can help children and their families to think about their hospital experience more positively. They also found that waiting areas designed to allow supervised play can reduce anxiety in children and their caregivers.

The guidelines will help Lyons and other architectural agencies design hospitals and healthcare facilities that are more supportive spaces for patients, their families and staff.

Three meercats play fighting in a tree stump
Animal attractions – like the meerkat enclosure at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne – can make hospital visits a more positive experience for children.

The need

Best-practice design of hospitals and healthcare facilities has to meet the often-competing demands of different stakeholders. They include regulatory bodies, medical professionals, support staff, and patients and their families. Because of space and budgetary constraints, architects must prioritise the design features that are most likely to benefit patient health and wellbeing.

Design features include building acoustics; lighting; ventilation; surface materials and colours; nature and artwork; signage, maps and floor plans; and support spaces for patients, their families and staff.

Lyons, which offers specialist expertise in designing healthcare and hospital facilities, needed evidence-based research to inform its own practice and contribute to industry knowledge.

Studies have shown that physical environment can improve people’s health and healthcare experience. But despite a growing interest in patient-centred design, there is little post-occupancy research on how hospital design influences people – especially children.

The research

Architects and designers from Lyons worked with University researchers from the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning. The research team was led by Corbett Lyon, a founding director of Lyons and a visiting professor at the University, and Professor Julie Willis, Dean of the Faculty.

The team began by reviewing evidence of design features that benefit patient health. They chose features to study in two children’s hospitals: the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne and the Monash Children’s Hospital in Clayton.

The research focused on three types of design feature:

  • Wayfinding, including navigation, signage, visual theming and exterior views
  • Distraction, including animal attractions, artwork and nature
  • Social spaces, including socialisation spaces, family amenities, activity spaces and waiting areas.

The team used different methods to understand how people use each design feature and how they perceive their value. They spent more than 180 hours observing people inside the hospitals. They surveyed more than 600 patients, caregivers and staff. They conducted focus groups with building users. And they carried out drawing exercises with young patients and their siblings.

The team used these data to determine the relative importance of each design feature in promoting health and wellbeing. They used these findings to develop guidelines for designing hospitals and healthcare facilities.

The partnership

In 2013, Corbett Lyon approached Professor Willis with the idea for the project. Along with their colleagues, they formulated the Design for Wellbeing research project. It was funded in 2014 by a three-year Australian Research Council Linkage Project for $A278 000. As the industry partner, Lyons contributed $A100 000 and in-kind support.

Through the project, Lyons acquired insight into research practice, including how to assess and use research literature, and conduct ethical, robust research. Lyons also benefited from the University’s multidisciplinary perspective, with the team tapping into other fields – such as medicine and science – as necessary.

The University researchers benefited from Lyons’s experience in designing healthcare and hospital facilities in Australia. This included insight into the competing priorities that architectural practices face and how they are managed.

Intellectual property arising from the project is shared equally between the two partners.

In April 2019, the partners jointly held the Design for Wellbeing Symposium to share their findings. Attendees included academic researchers, architects, designers, hospital executives and staff from the Department of Health and Human Services.



Funding support

ARC Linkage Project (LP140100202)


McLaughlan R et al (2019) Attractions to fuel the imagination: reframing understandings of the role of distraction relative to well-being in the pediatric hospital. HERD: Health Environments Research & Design Journal 12(2): 130–146. doi: 10.1177/1937586718810878

McLaughlan R (2018) Psychosocially supportive design: the case for greater attention to social space within the pediatric hospital. HERD: Health Environments Research & Design Journal 11(2): 151–162. doi: 10.1177/1937586717731739

McLaughlan R, Pert A (2017) Evidence and speculation: reimagining approaches to architecture and research within the paediatric hospital. Medical Humanities 44: 146–152. doi: 10.1136/medhum-2017-011285


Professor Julie Willis
Professor Philip Goad
Professor Alan Pert

Images: OuvaGreen & Dale Associates

Banner image: Distractions, like the Ouva Sensory Experience at Monash Children’s Hospital, can reduce anxiety in children and their caregivers.

First published on 27 April 2020.

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Case studyFaculty of Architecture Building and Planning