Healing Environment


Dipl.-Architektin ETH Petra Hemmi, Head Architect at ATP Zurich

05.04.2024, Reading time: 4 minute(s)

How “healing” design favors sustainability.

Hospitals often make us think of illness or suffering, rather than of the thing that we are actually here for – healing. This is precisely the dilemma that modern design is seeking to change by increasing the focus on people and their many needs. Today, we talk about health sector buildings or healthcare facilities, and this also has a positive impact on their ecological and social sustainability.

Redirecting the focus onto healing
The scale of the impact of our environment on our psyche and, hence, on our recovery, is underlined by many studies. This means that, in the context of health buildings, the concept of the “healing environment” is becoming ever more important. This concept says that “surroundings that support healing” reduce stress and generate a sense of safety and security. This helps the healing process and/or increases general well-being. A 1984 study by the architecture professor Roger Ulrich is widely quoted in this context.1 This discovered that patients in rooms with views of greenery spend less time in hospital than those whose rooms offer views of walls.2

The healing environment has a soothing impact due to such positive aesthetic features as materiality, the choice of colors, and the interior finishes. In addition to this, it offers access to nature and green areas and seeks to promote social interaction and increase the efficiency of operational processes.

Prevent stress factors with the help of holistic design
When planning any form of health facility – whether a new building, a conversion, or a refurbishment – the comprehensive integration of aspects of the healing environment into the design concept is now a standard part of the process. Clients demand this themselves: because such an attractive context benefits not only patients and visitors but also – and this is very important – the entire staff. We should never forget that a health sector building is also always a workplace with a complex structure and a high stress factor. This is why our design process pays special attention to enhancing wellbeing by avoiding or minimizing the following stress factors:

  • Noise: Quiet and undisturbed sleep are very important for the healing of patients. This is why we take great care to separate potentially loud areas from patient rooms and other quiet zones. The use of insulating materials can also counter ambient noise.
  • Nature and natural atmospheres: Biophilic design – design that embodies the human tendency to interact with nature – establishes a range of relationships with nature that promote calm and relaxation. These include adequate daylight levels, attractive views, and the use of natural materials such as wood. Other benefits come from access to an area of greenery such as a garden, a park, or a terrace, which can offer all users of a building the opportunity to distance themselves from their workplace or place of healing and to move around or take a rest in the fresh air.
  • Air quality: Our sense of smell is directly connected with our emotional wellbeing. Disagreeable odors trigger negative emotions. High-quality ventilation and filtering systems support an odor-free and, above all, healthy ambient that doesn’t remind us of sterile “hospital air.”
  • Colors: We create an atmospheric mood board with a cosmos of colors and textures that radiates calm and positive energy. The integration of artworks into the interior design is another part of this process.
  • Flexibility and comfort: We ensure maximum adaptability so that a building can react to specific human situations and, for example, offer more privacy in the rooms or the public areas.
  • Orientation: Clear structures can improve the efficiency of operational or medical processes and shorten distances. These help patients to rapidly find their way around new surroundings.

The sustainable logic of the healing environment
When we talk about health sector facilities in general, we are talking about a number of different institutions in which a wide range of processes take place.

Functioning processes help things to run smoothly and this, in turn, reduces the stress levels of patients and staff. And, indirectly, these also contribute to the healing process. This is why it is so important that operational planning and integrated building design are closely coordinated.

In other words, integrated design addresses both functional and planning aspects, each of which must be closely considered in a sustainably designed, modern building. For example, a clinic with long-term patients requires a more restrained design combined with a high-level of adaptability that can enable special needs – for, for example, cozier surroundings – to be met. In contrast, a room in an acute hospital may occasionally have the feel of a hotel suite. In our design concepts, we also naturally address the cultural and geographical characteristics of the users. Many of the demands of sustainable design, which define a healing environment, also resonate with ecologically and economically relevant factors, such as the reduction in energy consumption that results from the use of daylight rather than artificial lighting. Sustainable materials and the use of energy-efficient building services also help to minimize the negative environmental impact of a building. At the end of the day, the design of flexible spatial structures that focus on the ever-changing needs of patients reduces the need for later, cost intensive, and operationally complex rebuilding measures.

In addition to this, a building that has been integrally and sustainably designed in line with the principle of the “healing environment” also enhances the image of a health sector facility, both internally and externally. Feel-good workplaces strengthen employee loyalty and satisfaction and reduce levels of fluctuation and staff sickness, which further enhances the positive working climate. A facility becomes more attractive to potential new medical personnel and this, in turn, increases the quality of the medical care that it can provide.


1Rainey, R. M. (2019). Design for Healing: The Transformation of Health-Care Facilities in the United States. SiteLINES: A Journal of Place, 15(1), 3–5. www.jstor.org/stable/26767357
2Ulrich, Roger. (1984). View Through a Window May Influence Recovery from Surgery. Science (New York, N.Y.). 224. 420-1. 10.1126/science.6143402.

Swiss Paraplegic Group. © Hannes Henz
Swiss Paraplegic Group. © Hannes Henz
Room on the intensive station, Swiss Paraplegic Group. © Hannes Henz
Room on the intensive station, Swiss Paraplegic Group. © Hannes Henz
Cafeteria, Swiss Paraplegic Group. © Hannes Henz
Cafeteria, Swiss Paraplegic Group. © Hannes Henz
Petra Hemmi

Petra Hemmi, Dipl. Architektin ETH, studied architecture at ETH Zürich, where she was also a design and diploma assistant of the architecture chair. In 1995, she and Serge Fayet established Hemmi Fayet Architekten AG (integrated into ATP Zurich in 2024), which has developed into a specialist hospital design company.

Petra Hemmi
Head Architect at ATP Zurich

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