Connecting the Dots: How Healthcare Operations Inform Design

Healthcare facilities are a backbone for their communities, necessary for sustaining the health and wellness of all who live there. A lot goes into creating healthcare environments that work for both the patients they serve and the staff who provide critical care – from having the right number of beds to planning strategic layouts that allow providers to do their best work efficiently to finding feasible solutions amid rising costs.

That’s where designers come in, working closely with healthcare teams to develop spaces that are customized to support each organization’s unique needs. Jessica Sweeney, a senior planner at BWBR, is one such designer helping to bridge the gap between architecture and healthcare. Formerly a strategist and operational leader for hospitals and clinics, she has worked with staff across the care continuum and witnessed first-hand how design can address roadblocks that organizations face.

In the latest episode of Side of Design, we sat down with Jessica to discuss the issues facing healthcare today, and how our planners’ personalized approach and specialized experience can make a meaningful impact.

Healthcare by Design

Healthcare planners help lay the groundwork that allows a facility to optimize operations – working with organizations to determine what spaces are needed, how large a facility should be, where it should be located, and driving conversations about how staff, patients, and others that are coming into the building need to use the space.

Considerations are made to determine how design can help patients feel more comfortable and in-control in healthcare settings, as well as how providers will benefit from spaces with enhanced functionality and flexibility. And with her extensive healthcare background, Jessica acts as a “translator” between the worlds of healthcare and architecture.

“My goal is to help staff make the space as functional as possible and help our designers make that space as functional as possible,” says Jessica. She has a key role in finding and analyzing data, working with data partners “to really hone in on how we’re going to use that space in the future, so that our planners and others on the team can figure out what spaces we need and how many of them.”

Both data and design also play a role in balancing innovation for the future with understanding of current needs. “We push the client to continue to move forward so that they are successful in the future, but also support the staff that are doing the work in the spaces right now,” she says.

Smooth Operators

In healthcare settings where staff are often spending long hours at work and patients may be facing lengthy stays, it’s all the more crucial that facilities meet their needs. Stakeholder engagement is the key to deeply understanding workflows and inefficiencies.

“You’re designing for the staff who are using the space and the public who has to be there – they don’t want to be there,” Jessica explains. “We love when we get to work with patients to design, but that’s not always possible. But the patients are the ones that have to use the space.”

By closely partnering with healthcare teams, designers can also discover cost-saving opportunities that delay the need for major capital investments without sacrificing the quality of care. Jessica discusses a project where an organization’s leadership thought they would need a new facility due to immense growth they were seeing. When the BWBR team completed walkthroughs to observe processes and talk to staff, they saw other possibilities to support the expanding patient population.

“Through those situations we realized they had a lot of operational opportunities,” she says, which led the team to determine they could work within the existing facility. “They could plan for the new building for the future, but right now there were other things that they could do that would solve their issues for not just the immediate term, but for the next couple of years.”

Counting the Cost

Along with identifying opportunities, BWBR planners also work with clients to design environments within constraints such as budget. “Healthcare costs are increasingly high, so our clients can’t always afford everything they initially think they need or know they need,” Jessica explains. “So, we have to figure out how to make those spaces more serviceable, make them more functional so that they can build what they need to continue to provide the care.”

The stakes are high when facilities no longer meet demands, particularly in rural areas that depend on critical access hospitals. “Oftentimes the organization is the biggest employer in the community, so we are tasked with facilitating a design that needs to exist, not just should exist,” she says. “It has to exist because it drives the health of the community, both culturally and financially.”

Monetary costs are not the only challenges encountered in healthcare projects. Changes in a facility’s design result in real impacts for users, which means designers must weigh the pros and cons of major alterations. “Changing operations has a cost, whether they’re worried about losing staff or patients being unhappy because they might have a different process,” she says. “We’re not designing in a vacuum – we’re designing for real people with real processes and real illnesses, and everything has a cost to change. Sometimes that cost is small and very worth it, and sometimes it’s not.”

Jessica and the other planners at BWBR are skilled at partnering to determine the right solutions for each unique organization and facilitating buy-in from staff, all toward the goal of creating an environment that makes providers’ jobs easier, helps operations run smoother, and improves patient outcomes.

Beyond Bricks and Mortar: The Impacts of Strategic Healthcare Planning

In the rapidly evolving healthcare landscape, strategic facility planning extends far beyond the design and construction of buildings. It involves a thorough analysis of market dynamics, targeting optimal locations, assessing the existing condition of facilities, and aligning future growth projections with the right facility solutions. 

At BWBR, we help optimally position healthcare systems to stay ahead of the competition and meet the changing needs of their communities. By examining key factors such as current and future potential market share, demographic trends and growth, and real estate portfolio alignment, we create enterprise-wide solutions that not only enhance patient care but also improve operational efficiency and financial sustainability.

Market Analysis

A comprehensive market analysis is the cornerstone of strategic enterprise master planning. By comparing the current market share of each service line with that of their competitors, healthcare systems can identify trends and opportunities for growth.

Analyzing historical data reveals whether there is opportunity for growth and a gain in market share gains if competitors have encroached on the market. Along with our healthcare planners, BWBR’s data analysis team customizes projections based on population and demographic trends to help forecast the growth or retraction of services, guiding strategic decisions for any system’s unique market.

Target Location Analysis

Understanding where to establish new facilities is crucial to setting organizations up for success. Our process involves mapping current campuses and competitor sites, identifying areas of population growth within the primary and secondary service area, then overlaying mass transit networks and drive time analysis.

This location gap analysis highlights underserved regions, guiding decisions on where to build new facilities or expand and modernize existing locations, while market analysis and key volume projections outline what services should be offered at each location and inform the facility program required to support projected patient volumes. Selecting an ideal location backed by data not only allows care to reach the right patients, but also lays the foundation for continued stability and growth.

Metro population growth heat map

Assessing Existing Real Estate Portfolio

An inventory and assessment of current campuses and facilities provide insight into the state of the real estate portfolio of a healthcare system. Facilities with aging infrastructure, those that inhibit operational efficiency, and sites requiring excessive annual capital investment are identified.

Using this assessment, the BWBR team helps prioritize which facilities need upgrades or replacement to enhance operational efficiency and patient throughput. With strategic planning, building a new facility isn’t always the only option to meet changing needs — minor expansions and targeted renovations can also be used to achieve significant impacts.

Facility Master Planning

Facility master planning involves establishing construction projects that maximize both return on investment and market share capture while strategically addressing the issues facing an organization in both the short and long term. Phasing strategies are created to implement each project, along with a 5- to 10-year capital allocation timeline. The capital allocation plan gives clients a roadmap for how to realistically implement the overall strategic plan, creating a facilities playbook for the future of a healthcare system.

Strategic healthcare planning is a process that requires a deep understanding of market dynamics, demographic trends, and facility planning. By focusing on these essential factors, the BWBR team designs environments that not only meet the current needs of patients but can also adapt to future demands. This comprehensive approach helps healthcare systems remain competitive, efficient, and capable of delivering high-quality care in an ever-changing landscape.

Facility master plan example

The Science of Lab Planning: Balancing Safety, Compliance, and Efficiency

Though scientific labs serve diverse purposes, from experimentation to manufacturing products using highly technical equipment, designing any environment where cutting-edge research and development takes place requires a deep understanding of function, safety, and compliance, in addition to aesthetics.

Between managing specialized instrumentation, hazardous materials, and complex regulations, working with a team that specializes in science and technology projects streamlines the process of creating labs that are not only safe and durable, but also as innovative and efficient as the teams using them.

The Role of Lab Planners

Lab planners play a pivotal role from the early stages of programming and planning laboratory spaces, collaborating with lab staff, researchers, lab managers, and other stakeholders to create labs that meet functional requirements, comply with regulations, and optimize workflow efficiency. This also includes strategically organizing work areas, equipment placement, and circulation paths to minimize disruptions and streamline operations. From initial space layouts to the detailed coordination of Construction Documents and code compliance, lab planners oversee every aspect of the design process. 

Navigating Codes and Regulations

These environments are heavily regulated with high operational standards, so balancing efficiency and aesthetics within strict confines takes the specialized knowledge of lab planners. Understanding of applicable codes and regulations is essential.
True for all labs is that safety and compliance is the top priority, which involves an understanding of a facility’s chemical use and the associated hazard level. FDA or EU-regulated facilities need to comply with a variety of strict protocols governing the production of pharmaceutical products, while facilities accredited for food, agriculture, biosafety, healthcare, semiconductor, and educational functions must meet specific requirements of their own in order to function.

BWBR’s planners execute a compliance strategy throughout the project, from big-picture decisions regarding adjacencies and workflows to granular discussions about waste treatment, utility terminations, and gowning. Thoughtfully planned safety systems that go beyond the guidelines create environments that not only meet regulations but optimize efficiency while decreasing potential hazards.

Managing Hazardous Materials

Nearly every laboratory environment utilizes hazardous materials, but building code requirements (and therefore the lab planner’s design response) are based on the material’s classification. The more hazardous a material, the more crucial design strategy becomes in creating a safe environment for storage and handling.

Planners work closely with stakeholders to understand the quantity of materials, how they are used, and where chemical control areas need to be located in relation to workspaces, which all determines how to optimize workflow. The International Building Code (IBC) regulates maximum quantities of hazardous materials, whether storage must be open or closed, and how many control areas can be located on each floor of a facility.

With a deep understanding of these codes, lab planners can create spaces that not only keep dangerous materials safe but also place them right where they’re needed. This means research and discovery can happen more efficiently, without compromising on safety.

Crafting Resilient Environments

Interior finishes in labs must meet durability, cleanliness, and safety demands in order to keep research and production running efficiently. Regulations also play a large part in determining appropriate materials in a laboratory, such as using liquid-tight epoxy flooring in spaces where liquids are utilized or walls with vapor barriers in humid cleanroom environments.

While requirements for finishes vary depending on the purpose and grade of each laboratory, it’s important that materials selected are suited for the type of production that takes place. This also includes facilitating heavy and frequent cleaning, limiting dust collection, and providing resistance against damage and spills. And although interior finishes must function well in a scientific environment, it doesn’t mean these environments have to yield on aesthetics. Our team knows that engaging, inspiring design is an essential part of performance in laboratories and are skilled at planning spaces that prioritize both comfort and compliance.

High-quality interior finishes selected by planners who understand how people and materials will flow into and out of a space help create laboratories that stand the test of time, maximizing sterility, integrity, and innovation for years to come.

Safety in Action

Scientific environments require an intricate balance of function, safety, and inspiring design for innovation to thrive. Lab planners, with their specialized knowledge, navigate the complexities of creating spaces that not only comply with all relevant regulations and standards but also foster efficiency. Through strategic design and deep understanding of what laboratories need to maximize results, they design labs that not only meet today’s demands, but are also prepared for the innovations of tomorrow.