It’s heartening to see the healthcare industry not only embracing sustainable design principles, but also taking it a step further and encouraging healthy lifestyles.

Not only are patients better served in recovery when their environment provides healthy indoor air quality, natural daylight, and inspiring artwork, but the entire healthcare system benefits when medical and support staff are themselves as healthy as possible. Hospital employees who are fit and relaxed make better decisions and deliver better care to patients. 

Moreover, taking steps that reduce absenteeism, employee error, and staff turnover can go a long way toward keeping operating costs manageable and retaining the kind of talent that brings added prestige to a hospital.

To support this goal, Yale-New Haven Hospital (YNHH) recently cut the ribbon on its new Livingwell Fitness Center, designed by New Haven, Connecticut-based architecture, art, and advisory firm Svigals + Partners. By encouraging employee fitness and relaxation, YNHH expects to enjoy a healthy return on the investment made to create the center.

The design of the new fitness center combines green building principles that promote occupant health, soothing aesthetics and artwork, and a fitness program proven to drive employee participation, administered by health management company MediFit. The result is an atmosphere of relaxation, which directly promotes the productivity, morale, and health of the hospital staff.

This will be no small, incremental benefit: With 1,008 beds among the Children’s Hospital, the Psychiatric Hospital, the Smilow Cancer Center, and the main facility, YNHH employs roughly 7,800 people, including 3,400 medical staffers. (The Yale-New Haven Health System is ranked as Connecticut’s sixth largest employer.)

In his remarks at the Livingwell ribbon-cutting, Kevin Myatt, YNHH senior vice president for human resources, stressed, “This center is for our employees who get up every day thinking about how to care for the needs of other people.” The new fitness center opened its doors just in time for 2012 New Year’s resolutions.


The warm-up phase
Among the goals for the new fitness center outlined by YNHH were sustainable design and a directive to promote and sustain an atmosphere of welcome, inclusion, and relaxation. The client’s commitment to health and well-being for its employees became the design charter for every aspect of the solution. The design team began to approach Livingwell as a balance between relaxation and energy, adhering to this concept throughout the process.

The team also applied its familiarity with “Boundless Resources,” Svigals + Partners’ proprietary approach to uncovering existing relationships that powerfully leverage individual endeavors, increasing their value and contribution to the whole.

The project location created significant constraints: the 13,000-square-foot wellness center would need to be built into the former Medical Center Pharmacy and YNHH Call Center, which was part of an adjacent parking garage. Adapting and retrofitting the two-story space would require a complete interior demolition, a partial exterior demolition on the ground floor façade, and, ultimately, the construction of a new mezzanine.

Most of the infrastructure had to remain intact, which meant adapting to the existing post-tension parking garage structure that surrounds the facility. In addition, the solutions for these technical challenges would have to be affordable, sustainable, and aligned with the project’s mission.

The large windows were retained to bring in natural daylight, enhancing occupant health while reducing energy consumption for artificial lighting; the natural illumination is dispersed by mirrored walls and diffused by installations of ceiling “cloud” panels. These groupings of curved panels set at various heights serve several purposes: They help activate and sculpt the ceiling in the large equipment room while also providing a cost-effective and aesthetically engaging way to conceal ductwork.

The garage challenge also provided an opportunity to create additional space by building a mezzanine area that now houses the men’s locker room, a 550-square-foot spinning class room, and 425 day lockers. Livingwell’s mezzanine creates an open loft feeling by utilizing decorative pendant light fixtures that visually connect the two floors, making it more inviting to explore the upper level. Flexible spaces feature exercise areas that are quickly and easily reconfigurable as classrooms.

Additionally, many of the center’s walls are curved, sculpting the space and accentuating movement. The adapted space combines state-of-the-art exercise equipment and the latest standards for indoor environmental quality (including low-toxicity finishes and high ventilation levels).


Staying with the program
YNHH wanted the new facility to foster participation by those less familiar with exercise programs. Livingwell avoids the tropes of crossfit and power-lifting gyms, which tend to intimidate newcomers; the program and the space are both geared toward cultivating a welcoming, relaxing, and non-judgmental ambiance. The hospital also encourages employees to maintain healthy lifestyles outside of the workplace, by integrating health initiatives such as classes on nutrition and lifestyle management into the Livingwell program.

The design team also leveraged each opportunity to express art in seamless locations that are expressive and sensitive to both the design and the budget. Barry Svigals, FAIA, the design firm’s founder, contributed murals for the men’s and women’s locker rooms. The abstract, dancing, Matisse-like figures stand 8 feet high, and have become a touchstone of the new fitness center, an unexpected and energizing encounter for first-time visitors to Livingwell.


Success through teamwork
Because the project is located in the Air Rights Garage, adjacent to the hospital but owned and operated by the New Haven Parking Authority, planning and approvals needed to meet not only YNHH requirements but also those of the New Haven Parking Authority and the city planning commission. The influence of so many parties on the design and approvals processes intensified the time constraints and financial limitations.

The design team engaged all stakeholders in a thorough process of identifying all possible cost savings, opportunities, and creative solutions. The method creates strong interrelationships that serve the project goals throughout the design and construction phase, and beyond.

In the end, the highly collaborative approach allowed the project to be completed within an unusually narrow timeframe, especially for a project that required so much attention and permitting from municipal bureaucracy. Originally announced in December of 2010, Livingwell opened its doors officially just one year later, on December 15, 2011.

The spacious facility made an immediate and powerful impression on the employees who attended the ribbon-cutting, many of whom have been using the facility regularly since then.

“I’m excited,” said Lenny Barraco, a lead plumber with YNHH Plant Engineering, as he signed up for membership. “I haven’t trained since I had knee surgery 12 years ago. Joining is going to let me do what I have to do to get in shape.” Memberships have been steadily increasing since the opening, as more hospital staff learn about Livingwell.

YNHH administrators believe that as employees enjoy the direct benefits of a fitness center dedicated to their use, so too will patients enjoy the indirect benefits of a higher standard of care.  

hris Bockstael, AIA, is Associate Principal at Svigals + Partners. For more information on Yale-New Haven Hospital, please visit