Englewood, Colo.’s Craig Hospital needed an update. After decades of working with patients two or three to a room and staff coping with closet-sized makeshift work spaces, senior leadership was looking for a modern facility to offer the best technology for its patient population, allow more community space, and match its reputation (Craig is touted as treating more spinal cord injury patients than any other facility in the world and has been ranked in the Top 10 Rehabilitation Hospitals by US News & World Report for 24 years).

The solution is a $90 million project consisting of 85,000 square feet of new space and approximately 135,000 square feet of renovated space that will double the size of the hospital’s outpatient clinic and create a new aquatic therapy pool. The new hospital will also provide much-needed space for the PEAK Center at Craig, which serves the rehabilitation needs of Denver’s greater community members who have neurological disabilities. Completion is scheduled for late 2016.

RTA Architects (Colorado Springs, Colo.), serving as architect of record, and partner SmithGroupJJR set out to fully understand the ins and outs of the facility before embarking upon design.

“The only way we could learn what Craig’s patients and staff needed was for the architectural team to spend a week in full immersion. We needed to do this up front, before we began the design process. There’s a certain aura—a certain patient/staff relationship—that you can’t capture in a white paper. You have to experience it,” says Randy Thorne, RTA’s principal-in-charge.

Thorne and SmithGroupJJR’s planner/designer Brenna Costello spent a week immersed with patients, families, staff, and administration at Craig. It taught them the intricacies of the hospital’s unique population and the inner workings of its care delivery model. The following planning and design process lasted a full year with an integrated team.

Designing for brain and spinal cord rehabilitation presents unique design challenges. The greatest was determining how to build the new facility around patients who would be hypersensitive to any unusual environmental stimulus during the construction and renovation phases. The solution involved breaking the enormous project into numerous pieces with a phased construction over a period of three years and collaborating deeply with experts from all disciplines.

The resulting design incorporates 52 new private patient rooms, which will offer full environmental controls and adaptable stimulus environments for traumatic brain injury (TBI) and spinal cord injury (SCI) patients. The rooms will have ample space for private family interaction and conversations with physicians and the rehabilitation team.

Patient lifts—important for TBI and SCI patients—are designed in every patient room with full room coverage to assist staff with patient transfers and help stabilize ambulatory patients when using the restroom.

Overall, it was important to create a facility that mimics what patients will encounter in the outside world. “Even though you can design simple ‘fixes’ for patients in wheelchairs, Craig’s rehabilitation staff feels that it’s almost pandering to provide amenities that graduates won’t find in the real world. Once they leave Craig, they’ll have to cope with round door knobs, bathrooms that aren’t the right size and configuration for their wheelchairs, curbs and thresholds, and the like,” Thorne says.