When architecture is part of the treatment

The New Mental Health Bispebjerg hospital in Copenhagen will provide a unique and improved environment for the treatment of psychiatric patients.

The project is using the experience gained from a full-size mock-up of a patient room, where focus was on testing the impact of light, air and sound on the treatment of the mind.

Today, the test room – also called the Patient Room of the Future – is at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), where it will be used for research into health in construction, but previously the room was situated on the roof of Bispebjerg Hospital’s underground car park. Here, architect Carlo Volf (photo) and his colleagues were able to test a completely new layout and reinterpretation of a modern psychiatric patient room – a room that has inspired the state-of-the-art New Mental Health Bispebjerg hospital, which is due to be completed in 2024:

“The design of the patient room is based on our knowledge of how light, sound and temperatures affect us humans. Light is not solely healthy, and it can be a problem if you are exposed to too much of it at night. This is also the case with temperatures and sound, and patients with mental health challenges are particularly sensitive to imbalances,” says Carlo Volf.

The solution is a patient room with a combination of daylight and dynamic LED lighting adapted to the sleep-wake cycle.

“Studies show that exposure to light early in the day affects our sleep-wake cycle so that we become more tired in the evening. For psychiatric patients who often struggle to fall asleep, building patient rooms that help them wake up earlier and get tired earlier helps us to stimulate them to develop better sleep habits,” explains Carlo Volf.

He says that in the test room, researchers have worked to optimise daylight in relation to the four corners of the world – and compensate with LED lighting where the natural light is not favourable.

Natural ventilation in patient room

Similarly, the air in the room – and not least the room temperature – play a significant role in the patient room of the future.

“In the old days, the rooms were aired in the morning and in the evening. That was a good idea, and it still is. Not only because it brings in new and fresh air, but also because the fresh air lowers the room temperature before we go to sleep. Our sleep quality is negatively affected by excessively high temperatures,” says Carlo Volf.

In the test room, efforts have therefore been made to increase both the mechanical and natural ventilation, which can be a challenge in psychiatric units:

“Psychiatric facilities have traditionally been built as so-called secure units. Which means that the windows cannot be opened. Despite this limitation, we’ve tried to ensure natural ventilation by breaking the façade with special window openings and with optimised vents,” says Carlo Volf, who adds that the natural ventilation also has other advantages:

“Through the openings, patients get sensory impressions from the outside. Being able to hear birds singing provides patients with some distraction and makes them feel less isolated than they might otherwise feel in a psychiatric patient room,” he says.

Birdsong without noise from the motorway

And sound and acoustics actually constitute the third important component of the patient room of the future:

“We want to eliminate noise, as it can cause patients to deteriorate, but we also want to give them a sense of the outside world.” Or to put it another way: “They should be able to hear the birds, but not the motorway,” says Carlo Volf, explaining that the superior acoustics in the patient rooms are created with light Troldtekt ceilings, while the walls in the test room are clad in acoustic oak slats to ensure natural ventilation with more fresh air and fewer hours of excessive room temperatures during the summer months.

“Traditionally, hospital buildings are full of hard surfaces. Troldtekt is therefore used to shorten the reverberation time in the patient room and provide a soft, brief reverberation,” says Carlo Volf, adding that the use of wood on the walls and ceilings also adds a warm glow to the room.

In addition to inspiring the construction of the New Mental Health Bispebjerg hospital, the experience gained with the test room will also be compiled into a report for builders, consultants and architects. It is expected to be published in 2021.

“Alvar Aalto said that the architect should defend ‘man at his weakest’; users in psychiatry are often weak, and architecture should reflect that. We will be doing even more research in this area and looking at how the experience we’ve gained so far works in the real world at the New Mental Health Bispebjerg facility,” says Carlo Volf.

FACTS: New Bispebjerg Hospital and New Mental Health Bispebjerg

  • Construction of the new hospital is an extensive project that will run until 2025.
  • The psychiatric hospital alone will cover 22,500 square metres, and will include both an emergency admission unit and 200 patient rooms.
  • The first phase of construction of the psychiatric hospital began in September 2019, with planned completion in 2022.
  • The second storey will then be built, and the entire New Mental Health Bispebjerg facility will be completed in 2024.