Many challenges entered into the equation of designing Florida Hospital for Women in downtown Orlando, Fla., including masking vibrations and sounds from an adjacent railroad, constructing safe balconies for patients to step out for fresh air, and creating a feminine ambience inspired by the beauty of nature. But they were challenges worth tackling for Adventist Health System, owner of Florida Hospital, in the face of a huge population swell in metro Orlando. “Today, more than 2 million people call Central Florida home. As that number continues to rise, so does our skyline,” says Kari Vargas, vice president of Florida Hospital, citing a young and diverse mix of residents.
Florida Hospital for Women adds to that skyline, the culmination of a larger vision Florida Hospital conceived in response to the population growth of recent decades. Once operations are in full swing early next year, Florida Hospital for Women will serve as the comprehensive tertiary hospital for the system, offering programs that promote both health and healing. Beyond the services that are already available—including obstetrics, high-risk obstetrics, mammography, cardiac screenings, wellness, and parent education—the owner plans to provide the region with leading-edge options in advanced gynecology, gynecologic oncology, breast health, and women’s surgery.
“We’re preparing Central Florida for the future,” Vargas says. “The young woman who walks in these doors to deliver her first child this year can return years—even decades—later for a diabetes screening, cardiac procedure, or education course on senior health.”
Opened in 1908, Florida Hospital consists of seven hospital campuses with more than 2,000 beds and 18 walk-in medical centers. Construction of the $180 million women’s hospital began in January 2013 on the 1,000-bed, eight-building campus in Orlando. It was designed by the Orlando office of HKS Inc., with Brasfield & Gorrie, also of Orlando, serving as general contractor. The first phase opened to patients in January 2016, focusing on mothers and newborns. All mother, baby, and wellness services—previously located in the campus’ main patient tower—have moved to the new 332-bed women’s facility.
New with old
The design of the women’s hospital strives to blend in with the building’s campus surroundings while also achieving a distinct identity. For example, the existing main hospital tower is angular, solid, and masculine, whereas the 12-story women’s hospital is curved in a gentle and graceful way.
Overall, there’s a sense of harmony between the new and the old, says Carl Beers, senior vice president and Florida health practice group leader at HKS (Orlando).
“There’s a very distinct softness that’s playfully juxtaposed against the campus’ more solemn buildings,” adds Teresa Campbell, the HKS design principal who oversaw the project. “The building becomes a symbol for campus unity and connectivity, much like women’s roles within our lives.” Positioned at the terminus of a looped entry drive, the women’s tower maintains a physical connection to the main hospital, the campus, the city, and beyond. “A multistory concourse flows from the existing hospital and transitions upward to a glass pedestrian bridge as it floats above a reflecting pool, whose life-giving water was the inspiration for the project,” Campbell says. An outside fountain near the building’s chapel supports that inspiration, as well.
Beyond aesthetics, the site required special considerations to drown out noise and vibrations from a nearby major railroad line serving both freight and commuter trains. Designers wanted to shield adult patients and newborns from these distractions and also recognized the heightened sensitivities of premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit.
To minimize vibration, engineers relied on a cast-in-place concrete structural system. Its inherent mass and stiffness met vibration criteria suitable for sensitive sleep areas and typical operating rooms. On the second floor, which houses 13 operating rooms for minimally invasive surgery and robotic surgery, engineers added framing to meet more stringent criteria and to further reduce vibrations, says Kevin G. Casey, a structural engineer with Paul J. Ford and Co. (Orlando).
“The high magnification required for these surgical techniques is sensitive to vibrations that are beyond human perception,” Casey explains. By loading the structural model of the building with the measured ground response of train-induced vibrations, engineers were able to determine if the structure’s design was conducive to patient comfort and surgical procedures. Adding an extra pane of glass to create triple-pane windows was another effort used to block noise on the side of the building facing the railroad, he says.
Welcome inside 
Hospital leadership wanted to make an impression on patients and visitors right from the beginning, taking them from the parking garage to a pedestrian bridge and escalator down to the main lobby. The lobby features a two-story atrium wrapped in glass; a large-scale glass globe chandelier; and graceful, hourglass-shaped columns covered in reflective glass mosaic with illuminated caps. Nested arcs simplify wayfinding by combining wood panels and lit signs that direct visitors to key areas of the hospital.
The lobby’s furniture continues the subtle water theme with elegant, icy blue vinyl and sofa backs featuring abstract designs. Modular sofas rest on area rugs imbued with abstract floral patterns. Overall, the setting emphasizes hospitality in keeping with the hospital leadership’s goal to welcome patients, newborns, and visitors while putting them at ease, says Veronica Zurita, vice president at VOA Associates Inc. (now Stantec; Orlando) and the interior designer who led the effort in completing the lobby and labor and delivery floors.
The corridors facilitate movement with soft cove lighting that follows gentle curves in the flooring. The design theme continues throughout the first floor, which houses the women’s wellness center, offering digital mammography, cardiac assessments, high-risk genetic cancer screenings, lactation consults, and the only milk depot in Central Florida.
Room for all
A multidisciplinary team, including engineering and design pros, physicians, nurses, chaplains, past and prospective patients, and even nutritional services and housekeeping personnel, informed the design process. “We had them come in and tweak the design,” says Vargas. “It’s one thing when you see the design on paper. It’s another thing when you’re able to interact from a full-scale mock-up, so it was very helpful.”
Input from staff and patients was extensive. In fact, their involvement led to a complete overhaul of the layout in labor and delivery rooms, where the original configuration included alcoves. Feedback led to a redesign of the rooms to be wide-open sp
aces, affording mothers a constant sightline to their newborns and better enabling the NICU team to demonstrate visually how they’re meeting babies’ needs.
All of the currently built-out patient rooms are spacious enough to accommodate daytime and overnight visitors on convertible couches. There’s also a foldout table for families to eat together or work. To make a patient’s stay feel less stressful, the hospital installed customizable overhead lighting and temperature settings. The headwall is dimmable, too.
Headwalls conceal much of the medical equipment, while still allowing nurses easy access behind sliding panels. “At the center of the headwall is an illuminated panel that acts as artwork,” says Zurita. In the childbirth rooms, these acrylic panels feature blue and green ribbons placed by hand. This design represents the “unveiling of a beautiful experience in life and the gift that childbirth is,” Zurita explains. “It’s one of the few times you’re at the hospital for a happy reason.”
The patient bathrooms were designed with infection control in mind. Shower walls feature durable solid surfaces without grout lines, so they resist bacteria and mold. Of the 14 labor and delivery suites on the third floor, 10 have hydrotherapy showers, outfitted with several jets to help relieve pain during labor. The other four have laboring tubs with air jets, also targeting body pains.
Creative details extend beyond the patient rooms, too. Catering to patients whose hospital stays may span anywhere from a week to two months, the design team conceived of an easy way for them to get some fresh air. From the fourth floor up, where patient rooms begin, every other level has a 150-square-foot balcony, accessible from the hallway and shared by staff, visitors, and patients, says Mohammad Alai, senior project manager at Florida Hospital’s office of design and construction.
An attractive feature for long-term patients in particular, the balconies presented architects with the dual challenge of fostering a safe and cool environment even during most of Florida’s warmer months. The balconies are positioned on every other floor because high ceilings allow hot air to rise; a balcony on every floor would be more likely to trap hot air against the next-floor balcony, and alternate floors allow more room for circulation and heat dissipation.
An 8-foot-high, impact-resistant glass railing permits unobstructed views, while two wooden benches anchored to the floor each seat three people. To further ensure patient safety, Alai says, the balconies are equipped with cameras that provide a constant live video feed to the nurses’ stations.
More to come
A second phase of construction calls for gynecologic surgery and oncology beds, a surgical suite, and a NICU. The phase is being carried out in two segments, with inpatient breast care moving in the fourth quarter of 2016, and the NICU relocating in the first quarter of 2017.
Overall, much thought went into creating an updated facility tailored to the modern woman. Access to the restorative aspects of nature—gentle balcony breezes coupled with picturesque views—are in keeping with the hospital’s mission to help female patients heal in mind, body, and spirit.
Susan Kreimer is a freelance medical writer in New York. She can be reached at