How sustainable design can transform health care

By Jonathan Cartledge*
Monday, 26 August, 2019

How sustainable design can transform health care

Dubbed a “sustainability superstar” by a national property awards judging panel, the $1.8 billion Sunshine Coast University Hospital is setting the standard for green health care in Australia.

Just 1% of the 2000-plus Green Star buildings around Australia are in the healthcare sector. Most of Australia’s greenest buildings are offices.

But if banks and law firms can reap the rewards of sustainable, healthy workplaces, then why can’t doctors, nurses and — most importantly of all — sick people?

We now have more than two decades of research, thousands of demonstration projects and a solid business case for sustainable design. We know green buildings aren’t just healthy for the environment, but also for the people who use them.

Our ageing healthcare facilities — with their around-the-clock operations, extensive air conditioning and specialist medical equipment — are notorious energy-guzzlers and water users. Hospitals use at least twice as much energy and around six times as much water per square metre as commercial office buildings.

The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council, for example, has found the ‘archetypal hospital ward’ consistently consumes more energy than any other building type and has some of the biggest opportunities for improvement.

We know buildings certified under the Green Star sustainability rating system use 66% less electricity than average Australian buildings, produce 62% fewer emissions and consume 51% less potable water than those built to meet code.

And we know, from analysis undertaken in 2018, that Green Star-rated hospitals prevent around 35,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere each year — equivalent to more than 4000 households’ emissions.

The carbon-reduction case for green healthcare facilities is compelling, but pales in comparison with the patient and staff productivity outcomes.

One study undertaken by the Mackenzie Health Sciences Centre in Canada found that depressed patients in sunny rooms recovered 15% faster than those in darker rooms.

The Inha University Hospital in Korea achieved a 41% reduction in average length of stay when patients stayed in sunlit rooms.

Medical errors fell by 30% at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit after hospital administrators installed acoustic panels to decrease noise.

And the Bronson Methodist Hospital in Michigan found that better ventilation, natural light, access to nature, music and privacy in its redevelopment project reduced secondary infections by 11%.

The body of evidence for practitioner productivity is also growing. Just one study from Harvard University found that green-rated buildings enhanced productivity by 26%.

And Bronson Methodist Hospital found that applying green design principles to improve indoor environment quality in its buildings led to a 4.7% decrease in nursing turnover rates.

These are just some of the stories of sustainable health care. But we need more of them.

Sunshine Coast University Hospital.

Just recently, the $1.8 billion Sunshine Coast University Hospital was recognised as Australia’s best public building after taking home a prestigious award at the 2019 Rider Levett Bucknall/Property Council of Australia Innovation and Excellence Awards.

Dubbed a “sustainability superstar” by the judging panel, the hospital is the largest healthcare building to receive Six Star Green Star ratings for design and construction. It was applauded for “resetting expectations for green healthcare in Australia”.

Delivered in a public-private partnership between the Queensland Government and Exemplar Health (a consortium comprising Lendlease, Siemens and Capella Capital, with partners Spotless Facilities Services and Aurecon), the hospital carefully balances environmental concerns, like energy efficiency, with people-centric design.

One of the biggest challenges for the project team was to deliver a 152,000 m2 building that meets clinical requirements without overwhelming staff, patients and visitors with its size. The building also had to optimise access to daylight, winter sun, sea breezes and the beautiful local landscape while managing harsher aspects of the Queensland climate, like the strong summer sun and heavy rainfall.

Upon full occupancy in 2021, the hospital is expected to consume 20% less energy than an equivalent non-Green Star facility. Solar hot water and thermal energy storage systems, energy metering and energy-efficient lighting all play their part.

And given that Queensland is no stranger to droughts and flooding rains, rainwater is harvested from around 80% of the hospital’s 38,000 m2 roof. Tanks can collect a massive 1.5 million litres and 90% of all water harvested is re-used.

Painstaking planning and project management were critical factors in the project’s delivery, and the result is spectacular. Gardens, small courtyards and outdoor spaces are green sanctuaries, softening the scale of the hospital. Many of the patient rooms look out onto lush greenery, bushland, water or wetlands. Three-quarters of all patients and visitors have easy access to at least one place of respite — and just under 50,000 m2 of space, around a quarter of the site, is green space.

This is the future of health care in Australia. While hospitals like this at the Sunshine Coast are still considered revolutionary, with time they will become business as usual, because we know that carefully considered sustainable design delivers better places for people.

*Jonathan Cartledge is Head of Advocacy and Public Affairs at the Green Building Council of Australia.

Top image: Sunshine Coast University Hospital.

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