Yawkey Center, Boston

Hospital waiting rooms are known for inspiring a claustrophobic blend of tedium and anxiety. But the team of architects that designed the Yawkey Center for Outpatient Care at The Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston was determined to do things differently.

Four architectural firms designed the Yawkey Center. Cambridge Seven Associate served as executive architect; Michael Fieldman handled planning and design; and Perkins + Will (design architect) and Steffian Bradley Architects (local architect) were tasked with the fit-out.

The architects made the emotional experience of the patient a priority in planning the layout of the building. They also spent years meeting with staff to incorporate departmental nuances into the environment—including the waiting spaces.

Waiting room planning

The Yawkey Center features a “main street” public corridor that runs the full length of the façade and faces the city of Boston. All of the waiting rooms are adjacent to this glass-lined corridor. By day, these waiting spaces are filled with an abundance of natural light. During the evening, the activity in the building is visible from the street, along with a kaleidoscope of color that decorates the back wall of each waiting room.

A glass wall separates the main-street corridor and the waiting areas. This internal glass wall features multiple levels of opacity—from clear to translucent to opaque—depending whether the intention is to comfort or stimulate patients occupying the waiting spaces.

The varying levels of opacity along the internal main corridor wall also provide psychological privacy for patients utilizing the waiting spaces.

Creating visual transparency

This dynamic variance creates a rhythm along the glass corridors. The doors to each waiting room are integrated into this glazing rhythm. While some waiting room doors remain open during the day, others are closed.

However, since the doors are full glass, prior to entering a waiting space, the visitor sees beyond the door to the staff waiting to greet them. There are no unsettling surprises for patients in or out of the waiting areas, and the transparency of the doors and walls encourages an open, welcoming environment and gracious attitude by hospital staff.

In addition, the visual transparency between the “street” and the waiting spaces allows each waiting space to feel larger and more open—dramatically less confining and closed-off. This transparency allows waiting patients to take part in the goings-on of the hospital and the external narrative of the city.

Clear wayfinding

One of the most effective ways to de-stress patients occupying a waiting space is to avoid causing a spike in anxiety prior to entry. Hospitals are large and confusing facilities to navigate.

It is understandable, given how challenging it can be to establish an appointment in the first place, that families and individuals trying to find their way to an appointment often become agitated about running late. In the Yawkey Center, signage is clear, wayfinding is simple, and waiting rooms are identified by a color that begins from the soffit in the main corridor and continues throughout the professional space to the waiting room.

In addition to the actual waiting rooms, the Yawkey Center was created with a variety of additional unique spaces for patients to wait. Visitors can find a quiet respite area along the public corridor where benches are provided. When prolonged visits are necessary, guests may spend time in the building’s coffee shop or in the soothing rooftop garden.

Artwork in waiting rooms

What would a waiting space be without art? There is a preponderance of evidence to indicate that art and healing are inextricably linked. Each of the waiting spaces in the Yawkey Center is furnished with picture rails that enable the colorful exhibition of healing creativity through the hospital’s art program.

The interior design aesthetic of the hospital and its waiting spaces has a consistency that carries from department to department. However, the staff was given the opportunity to select its own fabrics and accent colors.

The result is that the colors of the hospital are different on each floor, an effect that de-institutionalizes the hospital environment and waiting areas, and contributes to a kaleidoscope of color that is visible from outside the hospital during the evening.

The waiting rooms vary in size, depending on the practice size. In some cases, the waiting rooms are shared between two departments. Offering a variety of seating options goes a long way toward making a waiting room a more comfortable and interesting place to be. The waiting rooms at Yawkey Center feature numerous seating options, from single- and three-seat midsize choices, to cozy lounge chairs with accommodations and space for wheelchairs.

Designing for patient-specific needs

Some of the waiting areas were customized for the specific patient population. Pediatrics features colorful carpet patterns and wall panels, along with video games and play areas. In Vitro Fertilization has a private conference room where families can confer next to its main waiting space.

Quiet alcoves for breast-feeding are located adjacent to pediatric specialty and primary care. Some departments provide secondary exits from their areas, so that patients don’t have to pass through the waiting area—a sensitivity to design that provides an additional level of psychological privacy for patients.

It is an inescapable fact that waiting is often associated with anxiety. Waiting in a hospital tends to amplify this universal feeling. However, the feeling imparted by the Yawkey Center’s unique waiting spaces is stimulating, hopeful, and as far from emotional confinement as possible.

Linda Haggerty is a principal at Steffian Bradley Architects in Boston and can be contacted via e-mail at lindah@steffian.com. For more information, visit Steffian Bradley Architects.

(All images courtesy of Anton Grassl.)