Architectural Record BE - Building Enclosure

Functional Color and Design in Healthcare Environments

Color and nature provide healing benefits in hospital settings
This course is no longer active
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Sponsored by Glidden Professional
Celeste Allen Novak, AIA, LEED AP and Barbara Richardson
Continuing Education

Learning Objectives - After this course, you should be able to:

  1. Recognize the philosophy of Evidence Based Design for healthcare professionals.
  2. Review psychological and physiological use of color and nature and the application of color theory to healing environments.
  3. Define elements of color, hue, light reflectance and intensity and optimize selections for visual clarity for major areas and departments within the hospital atmosphere.
  4. Discover the positive impact on the hospital environment that is achievable when incorporating the influences of the five senses in the design process.



Applied research and careful study conducted by professionals on the impact of color and design on healthcare settings have changed the design palette used in new healthcare settings. There is a wide consensus that there is no clear evidence suggesting that any one color is effective in achieving a particular healthcare outcome. In fact, the highly subjective nature of color, color combinations as well as cultural associations of color palettes make the selection of effective color for any environment difficult to predict. However, data does suggest that design professionals who understand the elements of color and the introduction of nature into healthcare environments can make an impact on healing. Architects who engage all five senses into the design process can enhance the healing process.

This article will explore some of the design research into the psychology of color and exposure to nature to enhance healing environments. As architect Anne Cox, AIA, LEED BD+C, EDAC, healthcare planner at Albert Kahn Associates, Inc. explains, “The latest and lasting trend in healthcare is to use informed research. In addition, one of the newest mandates for healthcare design is to become stewards of the environment—a reflection of the medical mandate 'to do no harm.' The case for green healthcare design is no longer just about energy savings. The rationale for building green today takes into account financial gains, improved patient outcomes, better staff health and reduced turnover, and community benefits through a reduced environmental impact.”


A brief review of the history of medicine provides insight into the transformation of medicine from religion to science. Early humans living between 4,000 BC and 3,000 BC believed that illness was a punishment from the gods. In ancient Egypt, priests served as physicians as well as religious leaders. By the fourth century B.C., the Greek physician Hippocrates, considered the father of western medicine, was among the first to credit the environment as a cause for illness as well as a means of healing. The Greeks and Romans developed therapies that included massage, art and herbs for healing. In China, acupuncture was developed as a means to treat numerous illnesses. Throughout the world, early humans' life expectancy increased from 20 to 30 years of age.

Surgical area at the Elmhurst Memorial Hospital

Color used in surgical areas at the Elmhurst Memorial Hospital, designed by Albert Kahn Associates, Inc., provides a calming and soothing atmosphere for patients as well as an inspirational and functional work atmosphere for staff.

Photo by Scott McDonald


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Originally published in Architectural Record