Robin Guenther, a principal with Perkins+Will and senior adviser to Health Care Without Harm, took to the TEDMED stage last week to present an architect’s perspective on the built environment’s role in health. Guenther was a fine ambassador for our industry, speaking passionately to a global and professionally diverse audience about how healthcare architects, just like healthcare providers, need to embrace a common mission: to protect human health.

Guenther enumerated ways in which the building of hospitals over the past 70 years has contributed not only to environmental degradation, but to harmful health environments. This last point, she said, applies both to the world at large (materials manufacturing plants whose chemicals poison the communities around them) and to patients and staff within the hospitals themselves.

“How does it feel to inhabit these healthcare environments, with endlessly deep floor plans where surgeons literally never see the light of day?” she posited. “Our hospitals can’t function without massive inputs of electric lighting and mechanical ventilation. It’s a permanent life-support infrastructure.

“To steal a metaphor,” she continued, “they’re comatose. And to me, there’s something really ironic about asking caregivers to keep us alive in buildings that feel dead.”

But there’s hope, she said, and it lies in the growing architectural discipline of “restorative design,” which she described as “moving from so-called solutions that degrade health and environment to true solutions that do no harm and heal some of the harm we’ve already done.” She cited a number of projects as positive examples:

  • Swedish Medical Center near Seattle, the U.S.’s lowest energy-consuming hospital, which uses 60 percent less energy than a typical hospital through efficient building and energy system designs.
  • Kiowa County Memorial Hospital in Greensburg, Kans., the country’s first carbon-neutral hospital, which runs on wind power—in a city that was devastated by a 2007 tornado and made the conscious decision to rebuild itself as a green community.
  • Gundersen Health System, headquartered in La Crosse, Wis., which aims to be the first carbon-neutral health system in the country by the end of this year.
  • Cleveland Clinic, a system that relies heavily on regional businesses for its services and supplies rather than, as Guenther put it, “focusing on saving money through global supply chains, which bankrupts local communities.”
  • Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, with its abundant windows—which can open—allowing patients and staff to experience the sights and sounds of the surrounding waterfront.

Guenther said that restoratively designed buildings are “connected to nature and their surroundings. They feel alive. You don’t have to be afraid to breathe, because restorative hospitals are designed with healthy materials that are maintained with nontoxic cleaning products.”

And the cost to embrace restorative design? “It’s not money that prevents this,” Guenther asserted. “It’s mindset. Many of these solutions are cost-neutral, or generate financial savings. The reason we don’t do these things is because sometimes it’s difficult to see the harm. Sometimes it’s just more comfortable to continue to design and operate the way we always have.”

Guenther’s brief talk was stirring, and while much of her message was familiar to me (as it surely is to you), it was great to see a healthcare architect make these connections for a much bigger—and broader—audience. Better yet, TEDMED brings with it a high-powered audience that’s hungry for new ways of looking at issues and problems, and may even be in the position to make change happen.

For more insight from Robin Guenther, you can read her Take Five interview from earlier this year.