Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s Cornell Behavioral Health Pavilion, Sarasota, Fla.

Prior to the opening of Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s new Cornell Behavioral Health Pavilion in Sarasota, Fla., the hospital’s behavioral health unit operated in a 1960s-era building that was originally constructed as a nursing home and converted to a psychiatric hospital in the late 1980s.

“The old facility wasn’t designed for the population we serve,” says Terry Cassidy, executive director, behavioral health services, at Sarasota Memorial Health Care System. “The ceilings were low, there was not a good line of sight for supervision, it was kind of dark, and all the systems were in need of replacement.”

When the opportunity arose to build a new facility across the street, the project team, including architecture and interior design firm Gresham Smith (Tampa, Fla.), sought to deliver a setting focused on supporting individuals’ recovery.

“It needed to be not only warm and welcoming, but to ensure the best possible outcomes by providing a full continuum of quality inpatient and outpatient care in one location,” Cassidy says.

The new 95,000-square-foot pavilion, completed mid-December 2023, offers inpatient psychiatric services for patients ages 4 and up, as well as outpatient services for youth and adults including 24/7 crisis assessment, electroconvulsive stimulation treatment, and a wellness program for seniors.

Prioritizing staff, patient experience

Planning started in early 2021. An all-day visioning session to identify goals and needs was held with 22 staff members ranging from clinicians and executives to security and facilities personnel, says Carrie Kovacs, senior interior designer with Gresham Smith.

“We gained valuable insight both into the patient experience and what staffers experience in a day in the life,” says Kovacs. “This input helped guide our design decisions and influenced how we arranged the building, laid out the patient and staff spaces, and even the type of fixtures we used.”

Safety and the human experience were the top priorities identified by the project team, followed by quality and efficiency, integration of new technology, resiliency, and sustainability. For example, the new facility features well-lit hallways and nurses’ stations designed to provide maximum visibility of the patient areas.

Zoning patient floors for specific populations

Private patient rooms are another improvement at the new 82-bed facility (the former location had several multiple occupancy rooms). Units are dedicated to specific patient populations, including a 16-bed geriatric unit, 20-bed acute care unit, 24-bed adult unit, and 22-bed adolescent unit. Six outpatient service bays are also available, compared to only one in the old building.

A neighborhood pod set-up groups together patients with like demographics or diagnoses such as mood disorders or substance withdrawal. Floors are sectioned off into two zones—for example, the second floor has adolescents on the north end and geriatric patients on the south end.

The layout is the same on all three floors, making it easy for staff to navigate as they move from working in one area to another. Utilizing an onstage/offstage layout, as well as back elevators that are separate from the main entrance, new patients can enter privately and have time to get acclimated to the facility.

“Vendors and others can move tools, equipment, and other materials into the building safely without patient interaction,” says Cassidy. “The onstage area enables us to promote a calm, recovery-based environment [without] noise, distraction, and risks.”

Interior design strategies for behavioral health

An emphasis was also placed on making the aesthetics feel warm, welcoming, and adaptable to changing patient needs. Each patient pod features a spa-like, soothing blue color palette and unique natural imagery and themes suited to each population, avoiding anything too abstract or macro that might disturb patients in crisis.

For example, the adolescent area has an underwater theme, with coastal images and animals, while the geriatric side is floral inspired. Common areas follow suit with names such as the “Flamingo Room” or “Pelican Room.”

Materials were chosen carefully, with durability and the safety of staff and patients being the top priorities. For example, tile was avoided not only because it can feel sterile, but for safety reasons. “It can be smashed or broken when impacted, and then either used as a weapon or for self-harm,” said Christopher Davis, senior architect, Gresham Smith.

Cassidy adds that the Pavilion doesn’t support the negative image that many people have of a behavioral health facility. “The aesthetics provide a message that each patient is important and valued,” she says. “We’re really pleased with the building and hope to inspire others to advance these vital services.”

For more on behavioral health design trends, go here.

Beth Negus Viveiros is a freelance writer based in Newton, Mass., and can be reached at