For architectural firms, healthcare is one of the few market segments with a promising future, in large part because of aging baby boomers needing long-term care. Consequently, many companies are rushing to get on the bandwagon and develop a healthcare division. Unfortunately, many of these firms are not fully qualified and can get a client into trouble because they not only don’t have the answers, but they don’t know the questions to ask. It’s like the old expression: “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

Healthcare has become a very specialized area in the interior design field. That’s why it’s very important to carefully choose the interior designer for your long-term care facility. This article provides a checklist of things to look for when making your selection.

Knowledge and experience

These factors play a big role in earning client trust. Be sure to interview the person who will actually be doing the work. Find out about their personal qualifications, not just the architectural firm’s qualifications; while many firms have substantial healthcare experience, that doesn’t mean the specific person assigned to your project has any.

For example, you’ll want to be sure the interior designer is familiar with:

  • Community health codes

  • Fire codes

  • HIPAA/privacy issues

  • Infection control constraints

Your interior designer must be familiar with these codes and regulations in order to specify the correct materials.

Experience makes all the difference, according to Bart Carrel, administrator for Borgess Nursing Home, a subsidiary of Borgess Health, in Kalamazoo, Michigan. “Working with an experienced healthcare interior designer saves time at every stage of a project, from initial planning to project completion. We appreciate not having to invest our time and resources into getting someone ‘up to speed’ on our industry’s requirements.”


This is another key component in hiring an interior designer. Communication needs to be frequent and robust. You need to be able to bounce ideas off each other and discuss options freely. You must be able to understand each other’s point of view—you have to connect with each other. If you are not on the same wavelength, the project will suffer.


How dedicated to your project goals is the interior designer? All involved in the project must have a compelling reason for doing what they are doing and a desire to improve on an idea, space, or theme. Together, you must be committed to finding solutions to issues, even during the challenging times of budget crunches and time constraints.

“In addition to specifying appealing colors and finishes, the interior designer must also be level headed and have a good business sense,” explains Jill Eldred, Vice-President of Visiting Nurse Association and Extended Healthcare Services for Borgess Health. “It’s important that the designer have a strong working knowledge of appropriate products and their associated quality levels, practicality, and costs.”

Details, details, details

Does the interior designer appear to be organized and a clear thinker? With each project, there are a host of design-related details to coordinate, so keeping up with things as mundane as meeting notes is very important.

As you approach a project, it’s important for the interior designer to work through design details with the architect and contractor. You’ll want to find out whether what you are dreaming about can be built and is affordable. And what happens when materials are discontinued? Or when the contractor wants to substitute other materials as a less expensive (and perhaps inferior quality) solution? Following up in a timely manner to situations like these is another way a well-qualified interior designer can handle your project challenges.

There are other details to coordinate, too, such as details you likely wouldn’t think about until the end of the project. A seasoned healthcare interior designer can help you identify items you need to include in the design process, including signage, magazine holders, clocks, artwork, and even trash containers. These items help to unify a space and are the finishing touches that make an interior shine.


For years, we’ve heard about “thinking outside the box.” It’s still an important part of the interior design process—the creative touches that help personalize a facility. For instance, an interior designer might specify a variety of themed collections, such as beautiful stones or seashells, to be securely displayed at strategic points throughout the facility. Not only can design elements like these inspire fond memories for patients and visitors, they may also serve as helpful wayfinding tools. In addition, these creative touches often spark spontaneous conversations that establish connections, helping people become more comfortable in an unfamiliar place.

Talk to prospective interior designers about the creative process and what it means to them. How do they approach a project creatively? Do they have passion for what they are creating? What kinds of things do they do to brainstorm solutions? How do they present these ideas? Do they personalize the solution for your project or is it a cookie-cutter solution? Seek out unique and interesting results for your project so there is a meaningful story for your facility that everyone understands and can tell others about. It’s exciting to be part of a team working to give meaning to a building people will live and die in.

Fresh approaches

While attending a healthcare design symposium a few years ago, I participated in a seminar on long-term care design. As usual, all the chairs were in rows and the podium was on stage. I knew I was in for something special when the speaker walked into the room and announced that he could not share his ideas with the room arranged this way. He asked us move our chairs into a circle, came down from the stage, sat on the floor in the middle of the circle, and placed the overhead projector in front of him to serve as a pseudo “campfire.” Sharing ideas around a campfire was infinitely more interesting than listening to a lecture delivered from behind a podium. It was an outstanding way to get our undivided attention.

He shared about the Eden AlternativeTM, which provides alternatives to traditional nursing home care by creating new living environments that honor seniors, and explained that as people age, their worlds get smaller and smaller. Because it becomes increasingly difficult for people with physical restrictions to get around easily, they begin to stay in their familiar environment for longer periods, until eventually, they don’t get out of their room much at all. Their room becomes their world. As interior designers, we are designing people’s worlds. I have never forgotten that example. It certainly gives a different perspective on the important work we do!

Since patients can’t always judge the clinical quality of a healthcare facility, interior design plays a key role in how a healthcare institution is perceived. Solutions that offer beauty and function along with being easy to maintain can affect a patient, visitor, or staff member experience in a positive way.

Choose wisely for best results

There is no substitute for good, qualified people on your team. Take time to investigate who will be most knowledgeable to solve your challenges and work the hardest for you! Find someone who is there to serve you and your facility design, not his or her own ego. You will be glad you did. HD

Mary Bamborough, IIDA, is Director of Interior Design at GMB Architects-Engineers in Holland, Michigan. For further information, phone 616.796.0200 or visit