Hospitals are incredible spaces. They nurse millions of people back to health each year. They are spaces that encourage growth and create a surplus of emotion from the heartache associated with death to the joy of new life.

But the more time we spend in hospitals, the more we may be negatively affecting our physical and psychological health.

When my mother was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer, I was dismayed to discover that her chemotherapy hospital room at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary looked more like a cleaning closet than a place of restoration and health.

Hospital 3The cancer treatment rooms at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre feel cramped and there is little privacy apart from a small curtain. Photo by Lexi Wright

The colours of the room were a mix of dull grey and white furniture, featuring little more than a few uninspiring blue-grey chairs. The room felt cramped. Here, my mother would spend four hours every week connected to an IV, surrounded by nothing but uninspiring views. I couldn’t imagine anyone’s health being positively encouraged in such a mundane treatment room, let alone a person living with chronic cancer.

When my mother is at home, she feels content and relaxed, unlike when she visits the hospital. But if she spends so much time at the hospital, why should hospitals make her feel any different? I needed to find some answers, so I went searching for some.

Nora Bouz holds an advanced diploma in holistic interior design.

Nora 4Nora Bouz had been working in interior design for more than 12 years. Photo courtesy of Nora Bouz.

Surprised by the lack of holistic design concepts in Calgary, Bouz founded her own holistic interior design company in 2017 called Lucida | Wellbeing by Design.

Bouz is currently designing spaces for the Canadian Mental Health Association. The CMHA’s new client facility is designed so people can talk to and connect with each other in a relaxed environment.

“When we are healthy physically and psychologically, we are happy; we have balance, we are content. Those are the main goals of holistic design and those are the goals I have working with CMHA,” says Bouz.

Colour and light are two extremely important aspects of holistic design. In Calgary, where people spend a fair amount of time indoors, both of these factors are extremely important considerations, especially in public healthcare institutions.

“When the sun is at its peak, it reaches 6,000k [kelvin, used to relatively quantify colour and its relation to temperature]. When the sun rises and sets, it is at 2,600k. The colour temperature that we need as humans is related to the sun, so when we live inside of our houses for the majority of the year, we need to think consciously about the light we are bringing in. I think hospitals should be considerate of this idea too,” says Bouz.

So then what is it about hospitals specifically that may cause us to feel run-down?

Occupational therapist and interior designer Jacquie Jacobi says that some of the biggest mental health factors stem from the colours associated with hospitals.

CMHA 4 copy copyThe CMHA Welcome Centre is designed without a reception guest, so clients feel warmly greeted by the CMHA support team as soon as they enter the door. Photo courtesy of CMHA.

“We are surrounded by an infinite palette of colour. We see it in nature, and we see it even inside our own homes. Colour is what inspires the core principles used in interior design. Children’s hospitals often incorporate more colour because we associate colour with youthfulness, and children love things that are colourful. The important thing to remember is that adults need colour too.”

These same principles also apply in the presentation of food and in the culinary field. It is evident that colour is an inseparable part of our everyday lives, and all the more puzzling to explain why there is a lack of colour in so many Calgary hospitals.

“White sterile walls are often associated with a clinical appearance. Adding pops of colour and a whimsical ceiling design can make the hospital environment seem less intimidating,” says Jacobi.

A 2008 neuroscientific research study by Eve Edelstein, a research fellow with the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, found that the color spectrum of light directly influences human biological systems and health outcomes. And this is but one of many studies confirming this research.

“There’s been such a focus on standardization but also when you’re working in a hospital setting, there are a lot of restrictions as to what you can bring into the environment. One reason is because of fire regulations. There can only be so much cloth, wood, and art on the walls. The other restriction centres around contamination and the spread of disease, so often plants carry the concern of mites,” says Jacobi.

Laura Benko, a New York design expert and author of The Holistic Home: Feng Shui for Mind Body Spirit Space, says that the importance of holistic healthcare design goes beyond aesthetics.

“Unfortunately in a hospital, there can be a lot of suffering, uncertainty, fear and trauma. Because of that, this negative energy resonates even more so. That is why it is even more important to address these issues within healthcare systems,” says Benko.

Laureen MacNeil, Executive Director at Canadian Mental Health Association Calgary Region, says that because of building restrictions and funding, adding more holistic design elements to hospitals can be challenging.

“Big design work in hospitals is difficult. It takes about 10 years to complete a design from inception to the final project,” says MacNeil.

My mom is staying at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, which was built almost 40 years ago. The building is outdated and old in comparison to newer hospitals, such as the Calgary South Health Campus.

“The Calgary South Health Campus really utilized state of the art thinking to create a more holistic space, but that was a big time commitment.The real challenge is the time it takes to get from design to implementation,” says MacNeil.

Hospital design is not just a problem of personal priority, tastes, monetary resources or available space. It is a cumbersome and complicated mix of these factors – and many other factors competing for answers.

MacNeil says that she’s worked in healthcare for her whole career: “There’s nobody I’ve worked with who didn’t want to improve the experience of their patients by creating better spaces.”

The CMHA was designed to create an atmosphere that felt inviting and warm, but even that project isn’t completely finished yet.

“Time and money play a huge role. But every time a new organization is built, new facilities lead to new thinking and a more holistic approach. We only have so much capacity with the hospitals we have now,” says MacNeil.

Edited by: Omar Subhi Omar |

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