It’s impossible to forget what the HEALTHCARE DESIGN conference is all about, thanks in particular to one component of the annual conference—the facility tours. Each year, as attendees begin descending upon the event locale, and before the main events kick off, the shuttle buses arrive and hundreds are taken to local hospitals and healthcare facilities to see what that year’s community has to offer.

I was fortunate enough to be able to join a packed tour of the Ingram Cancer Center and Vanderbilt Hospital Critical Care Tower at Vanderbilt Medical Center on Sunday. If not initially apparent what severity of cases these particular buildings treat, a medical helicopter landing at the top of the critical care tower at the end of our tour spoke volumes.

The back story of the facilities, in summation, goes a bit like this: In 2006, the medical center began planning as series of renovation projects at the cancer center to more than double its size and serve more patients as the only comprehensive cancer facility in Tennessee. The result was an 8,000-square-foot central registration area and lab, a 22,000-square-foot outpatient clinic, and an 18,000-square-foot infusion suite, designed by Southeast Venture.

On a similar track is the critical care tower, a nine-story addition to the Vanderbilt University Hospital that was completed in 2009. The 329,000-square-foot building was designed by Donald Blair Architects with Earl Swenson Associates as the architect of record. It includes five floors of acute care beds, 12 ORs, and space for expansion.

Our first stop on the combined tour was the neurology ICU in the critical care tower, where neutral earth tones soothed while creating a somber and serious environment. Decentralized nurses’ stations were at the same time extremely linear, lining the entirety of patient room corridors, with computer alcoves between each room and workstations on wheels accessible to take on the go.

The goal was to create more functional spaces while also establishing standardization, and the key to the design, in part, was found in thorough focus groups and mockups. In fact, since the opening of three units in November 2009, only two minor adjustments have been made to patient rooms as subsequent floors continued to be constructed—a significant testament to the success of the design.

On the cancer side, infusion areas feature bright, neutral tones with soft lighting to soften the overall experience. In the main area of the cancer center, a new entry was created for cancer patients that leads them to a sizable, hospitality-inspired patient area, where privacy is considered at the registration desk and a lab area abuts the space so blood work can be run right on the spot, with results ready by the time a patient meets with his or her doctor.

Decorative resin panels are incorporated throughout, with a ribbon-like pattern used in the wood floors to assist patients in wayfinding. Distinctive artwork was incorporated in the center through the combined effort of Vanderbilt’s art procurement team working alongside interior designers to align one component with the other. The result is a space that defies the levity of the daily occurrences that take place within its walls.

And while I am thankful to have only walked through these two distinct spaces as a visitor, their importance to the community and to Vanderbilt was certainly not lost.