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The Architecture of Health Care

At the new Albany home of Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood, the concept of patient well-being is part of the design

by Darryl McGrath on June 16, 2011

Urban community-based health-care clinics are often crammed into ill-suited, makeshift quarters in old buildings, with the clinic barely fitting into the space instead of the space fitting the clinic’s needs.

So imagine a clinic facing the luxurious prospect of a completely blank and roomy new location that could be customized to its specifications, and you can understand why Patricia McGeown spent so much time during the design stage just walking through the airy third floor of the Central Avenue office building that now houses the Albany offices of Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood. After years of making do in an overcrowded and inefficient three-building complex on Albany’s Lark Street, the possibilities for the new space at 855 Central Avenue seemed limitless.

Executive Director Pat MCGeown

And indeed, the wait has proven worthwhile. During a recent tour of the building, McGeown—Upper Hudson’s executive director—showed off a spacious conference room, a number of energy-efficient features, a brightly decorated drop-in center for teenagers, an Internet-wired library that doubles as a meeting room and a floor plan in which natural light reaches the innermost spaces.

“I now can have all my staff in one room for an all-staff meeting,” McGeown says. “We used to have to go off-site. We never had dedicated teen space at the other center; it was jury-rigged in a conference room. We have the capacity to serve more people and to serve them more efficiently.”

Patients will find a much larger waiting area, dedicated rooms for recovery and phlebotomy, six exam rooms instead of the five at Lark Street, and three consultation rooms, a feature the Lark Street site could not accommodate.

The longtime Lark Street property is under contract, although the buyer has not been announced, says the agency’s real estate agent, Tom Cairns of NAI Platform Realty. Cairns helped Planned Parenthood find the new space, which is on the third floor of a late-1960s-era office building set back from the street and surrounded by a parking lot. The move and the renovation at 855 Central Avenue cost about $2.6 million, of which Planned Parenthood needed to raise about $1.7 million. The agency is a little more than $200,000 short of that goal.

Planned Parenthood moved into the18,000 square-foot new quarters in September with a long-term lease. In the months since, the staff has settled in and has grown accustomed to both the 50-percent increase in space and a number of dual-purpose and efficient features. Flip-top conference tables convert into narrow, lightweight, wheeled panels that can be moved from room to room to accommodate functions as needed. Small filing cabinets with upholstered tops and casters pull out from under desks and double as seating for impromptu meetings.

Doorways framed by subtly trapezoidal panels of glass—known as “sidelights”—create a sense of continuity as you move through the offices, and the unexpected trapezoid instead of the usual rectangular shape of the sidelights plays a visual trick that makes the door look wider. Glass transoms throughout the space allow natural light to reach far into floor plan.

But for all the sense that you can move through different areas easily, a key card system makes it impossible for anyone to get from one section to another unless that person is authorized. McGeown describes the new location as “very secure.”

People entered the Lark Street building directly from the sidewalk. Because the Central Avenue building is surrounded by its own parking lot, anti-abortion protesters can no longer stand near the entrance. While protesters do still gather on the sidewalk along Central Avenue, they are more than 100 feet from the doors, and “the volume of picketing has dropped considerably.”

The Central Avenue space had been gutted down to the exterior walls and a concrete slab floor when Planned Parenthood leased it. This spatial version of a blank slate provided a rare opportunity for Architecture + (spoken just as it looks, “architecture plus”) of Troy, which specializes in health-care design and which also designed the Troy offices of Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood in the Hendrick Hudson Building at 200 Broadway a decade ago. Licensed interior designer Stephanie Todero was the project manager for the Albany office’s move to Central Avenue, and worked with partner Francis Pitts and architectural associate Sara Wengert.

“They were very trusting, which is the best client for a designer to have,” Todero says of the Planned Parenthood staff and board as they developed the new quarters. “It allows your vision to be executed.”

That vision included bright white door trim throughout and a palette of earth-toned paints with unexpected shots of chartreuse and other bright colors in the furniture and accessories. The funky-but-functional approach especially comes through in the large room designated as the teen drop-in center. At the Lark Street site, a conference room doubled as the teen space, and the staff and trained peer educators would move the furniture around once a week and plop some beanbag chairs on the floor to make the room more welcoming.

“The whole design, in my mind, was to be noninstitutional: bright, fresh, crisp and welcoming—nonintimidating,” Wengert says. “The teen room specifically, we made it fun and funky with the furniture.”

Youth Program Coordinator Loren Moore

The teen room gets high marks from the young people who use it most often: the high school students trained as volunteer peer educators through Planned Parenthood’s “S.T.A.R.S.” program, which stands for “Seriously Talking About Responsible Sex.” Every Thursday afternoon, the S.T.A.R.S. volunteers staff the drop-in center under the supervision of Loren Moore, Planned Parenthood’s youth program coordinator at the Albany offices. The drop-in center provides a quiet place for teens to stop by for conversation—whether or not they have an appointment—or to obtain information on topics related to sexual activity.

“It’s less intimidating than the waiting room,” says Zaraya Merritt, an Albany High School student and peer educator. She and her friends especially love the streamlined couch upholstered in sleek, tough but touchable fabric in earthy browns. The space at Lark Street, Merritt says, “was dull. We didn’t have comfy couches like this; we had to sit on the floor.”

Hospitals and health-care clinics present special design issues, says Pitts, the Architecture + partner in charge of the Central Avenue design. The major goals are patient safety and the reduction and elimination of medical errors, so attractive design has historically given way to efficiency and a more insitutional appearance, in which the layout consists of small identical rooms marching down a hall.

But studies of effective hospitals and health-care clinics show a relationship between the physical environment and the patient’s outcome, says Pitts, who is a fellow of the American College of Healthcare Architects and the American Institute of Architects. Other studies have shown that the patient’s length of stay in a hospital can be greatly reduced in a design that incorporates good light and a view.

One benefit to the new Planned Parenthood space: For the first time in many years, the Albany administrative offices are in the same place as the clinical areas.

“There’s always an operational advantage when people running an operation can be in close proximity to people delivering services,” says Pitts, who described Planned Parenthood’s design needs as challenging. “It’s nice that they could do this here.”