Putting Green Healthcare Design Knowledge To Work

November 5, 2013
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The business environment for sustainability in healthcare is rapidly changing. Facing pressure from the Affordable Care Act and reductions in Medicare reimbursements, hospital CEOs are looking to reduce operating costs and overhead, and turning to green initiatives to ease the burden. As a result, healthcare design professionals are finding the need to adjust their approach to sustainability, too.

Not that long ago, firms offered sustainable design as an additional service. However, green elements aren’t add-ons or luxury items today; instead, design firms need to have extensive sustainability expertise even to be considered for new projects. In May, Kaiser Permanente announced it will seek LEED Gold certification for new hospitals, large medical offices, and other major projects. But it’s not only large organizations that are adopting this stance; hospitals and medical centers of all sizes are demanding that sustainability be an integral feature in their facilities, as well. “With rising healthcare costs, sustainability has become a key factor in reducing operating costs while maintaining quality patient care,” says Mick Zdeblick, COO of El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, Calif.

Designers shouldn’t simply acknowledge these changes in the business environment; they need to look for ways to provide even more value to clients through sustainable initiatives that will improve the bottom line, for both the hospital and the design firm.

A driving force
To start, sustainable design offers a number of solutions to operational stumbling blocks. “Our clients, across the nation, are recognizing the need to hardwire sustainability into their operations. By hardwiring, we mean that once a business case is made, sustainability becomes the strategic elimination of waste in all forms. With this approach, environmental and fiscal metrics are used in tandem to express operational efficiency,” says Rick Ament, president of SOS Partners (DePere, Wis.), which specializes in strategic organizational sustainability for healthcare organizations. Lorraine Auerbach, CEO of Dameron Hospital in Stockton, Calif., agrees: "Sustainability is one of our organizational priorities. When we look for opportunities to improve, we look for opportunities in operations, quality, and sustainability."

As sustainability becomes an integral component of hospital operations, it becomes a baseline expectation for building projects, as well.

When designers are working to bring sustainability initiatives to the table on a new project, the definition of what that might be is expanding beyond energy and water conservation and using recycled materials. The elimination of toxins in building materials, for example, is a common request. "Because we have kids here who are extremely sensitive to chemicals, we have to be very cautious about the chemicals in our cleaning products and building products,” says Richard DeCarlo, COO of Oakland Children's Hospital in Oakland, Calif. “When selecting a design team, we brought in architects with specialized expertise in this area to help us make these decisions."

Likewise, at Mills-Peninsula Hospital in Burlingame, Calif., elimination of toxic chemicals in its new replacement facility was a key criteria. COO Dolores Gomez explains: "We were one of the first hospitals to eliminate mercury in our facilities. All our building materials are formaldehyde-free. The new hospital flooring is PVC-free, and every time we approached flooring, wall, and furniture materials, we looked as much as possible for products with safer chemicals.”

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