Courtesy of van Andel Institute
Courtesy of van Andel Institute


Mary Bamborough, IIDA
Mary Bamborough, IIDA


When planning and designing a new facility, the design team works through four distinct phases-architectural programming, schematic design, design development, and construction documents. During each phase, specific tasks must be accomplished in order for the project to move forward smoothly.

While all phases are extremely important to the success of a project, let’s take a closer look at the role of interior design during the schematic design phase. This phase is critical in setting the tone for the entire project.

During schematic design, we discuss concepts. Typically, the design team meets with the client three times. First comes the initial information-gathering session. At the second meeting, concept options are presented and the client selects a direction to proceed. At the third meeting, the selected scheme-now further identified and developed-is presented and discussed.

Throughout the schematic design phase, the interior designer should consider questions such as: What story can the interiors tell about the facility? How can we make the story meaningful? What material finishes support that story?

From a budgetary standpoint, it can be difficult to justify spending the necessary time up front to make key design decisions. Yet these decisions can have a powerful impact on the interior design selections throughout the facility-and the results can be amazing.

Courtesy of van andel institute
Courtesy of van andel institute


Case in point: Van Andel Institute Phase II in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Van Andel Institute is an independent biomedical research and education organization dedicated to making a difference in the lives of patients and families worldwide by solving the mysteries of human disease. The Institute’s remarkable building, designed by noted architect Rafael Viñoly, is set into a steep hill at the edge of the city center. It features glass roof structures and windows that provide abundant natural light throughout the building. Its 162,000-square-foot Phase I was completed in 2000. Phase II, which added 240,000 square feet on eight floors at a cost of $170 million, opened in late 2009.

Thinking outside of the box

As I prepared to begin the schematic interior design conversations for Phase II I wanted a way to get feedback on a variety of items, things that people could react to, whether positively or negatively.

At our first meeting, the client and design team viewed about 150 slides from a diverse collection of photographs. We looked at everything from nature and buildings to food and art. Each of us had a simple score sheet for marking “yes,” if we liked the image, or “no,” if we didn’t.

The group unanimously selected 19 of the 150 photographs. The 19 had predominant themes of nature and warm interior colors.

Next, each person received a “discovery” box (figure 1) containing at least 15 small, unique items. I asked everyone to select-then explain-three or four items that related to their thoughts about Van Andel Institute. It was fascinating to learn how each person used these items to connect with the Institute’s vision.

“I’m glad we spent that time up front because it made the project move along so much smoother than it otherwise might have. It was much easier to make decisions.”

David Van Andel

“The cascading effect of having everything fall in under the theme made that initial decision a critical decision… now that I look back, I’m surprised at all the things that have needed to tie back to that theme. It was very important to get that right the first time.”

David Van Andel

For example, a puzzle was a connection to solving issues and discovering innovative solutions. A candle was lighting the way to a brighter future. A plastic ear was for listening so we don’t create “for” you, but together “with” you.

David Van Andel, the chairman and CEO of Van Andel Institute, wasn’t sure about this process at first. “In the beginning, I thought you were nuts,” he says. “But at the end of the day it was helpful in focusing us into areas of commonality and interest. It gave us something of substance that was worthwhile.

“I’m glad we spent that time up front because it made the project move along so much smoother than it otherwise might have. It was much easier to make decisions.”

The client and design team also discussed at great length how we viewed color in the building. We agreed that the role of color was to convey an image, establish comfort, and emphasize the architecture. The interiors needed to unfold layer by layer, through a careful blend of finishes, textures, architectural elements, furnishings, and lighting.

Based on the outcomes of our design exercises, I developed three distinct themes for consideration at our second meeting. Each theme had a feeling to convey and a story to tell. Their important objective was to give meaning to the interior design of the space and move beyond color selection to give a true and cohesive story to the interior of the building. Establishing a theme is also helpful in decision making-enabling the design team and client to easily go back to the question, “Does it relate to our theme?” if unsure about what may or may not work for the project.

The three concept themes presented at the second meeting included:

The joy of discovery. This theme (figure 2) was about the joy you feel when the light bulb goes off in your head and you have an “aha!” moment. This quote from author Bruce Alberts sums it up: “To be a scientist, a person must enjoy solving problems. Scientists are generally optimists who care deeply about the improvement of human civilization. Success often comes suddenly and unexpectedly. One is rewarded with the rare experience of believing oneself to be the first person in the world who has ever understood how some small part of the world works! Nothing else can compare with the joy of such a discovery.”

Earth, Fire, Water, Air. The Greek philosopher Empedocles developed a theory of physical elements. He believed that everything was made up of four elements: earth, fire, water, and air. Using these elements, this theme was designed around the following ideas:

Earth: ground yourself in a solid approach

Fire: the spark that becomes flames of change

Water: the calming cool waters of clear thinking

Air: see a new perspective that gives you space to ada

This theme (figure 3) explored nature with a unique and fresh approach.

Multicultural. Built around the assertion that we’re all part of one big, diverse world, this theme (figure 4) recognized that ideas collected from many compass points could blend into a steady source of inspiration. Eclectic influences from around the world came together to form a cohesive and focused look.

Celebrating the diversity of Van Andel Institute staff, this theme explored international images and ideas to create a warm and wonderful global perspective.

And the winner is…

The multicultural theme proved to be the best fit. With 17 countries represented on their staff, the client recognized that this theme offered an opportunity to develop the building in a unique way and tell a story of diversity.

We proceeded to develop the multicultural interior design theme at our third and final schematic design meeting. We looked at how the theme could be played out successfully in carpet patterns, colors, artwork, upholstery, tile, laminates, wood, and other details. It was felt that perhaps staff could feel like a little bit of their native home was in a specific area of the facility-that they were cared about and thought about. A warm color palette was the overall “glue” to hold the differing styles together.

Building around the theme

Van Andel recalls, “The cascading effect of having everything fall in under the theme made that initial decision a critical decision. We were comfortable with what we chose and now that I look back, I’m surprised at all the things that have needed to tie back to that theme. It was very important to get that right the first time.

“If elements don’t support the theme, you have to ask why they are in the facility,” he continues. “The theme brought a sense of clarity to the building.

“As we saw the building getting close to completion, we saw how so many decisions along the way continued to support the original theme. It’s a lot like branding. Everything you touch has to have that common feel and if it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be there. It should all tie together. That’s what we’ve done here. It all makes sense. It seems right.” HD

Mary Bamborough, IIDA, is Director of Interior Design at GMB Architects-Engineers in Holland, Michigan. She has 18 years of healthcare design experience. Healthcare Design 2010 March;10(3):42-48