A new frontier in hospital design

Tuesday, 24 September, 2019

A new frontier in hospital design

Augmented Reality is helping to engage clinicians and staff in the design of their new healthcare facilities. Design Director, Alan Boswell, explains how.

It’s a conundrum faced by all architects: how to effectively communicate design solutions to the users of a space, to raise their comfort and understanding of areas being proposed and, ultimately, to get their final sign-off and endorsement. It’s an architect’s job to ensure users of a facility understand what’s being designed, and augmented reality is the newest technology to help.

A quick user engagement history

For many years, design work had to be communicated through drawings — a medium that is difficult for many people to understand, some of whom cannot read a floor plan or understand an elevation. Building Information Modelling (BIM) followed, which enabled a three-dimensional view of buildings to be created, allowing users to gauge an understanding of their proposed environment.

In the last few years, virtual reality (VR) has been used to better inform and engage users during the design process. Through the use of a VR headset or goggles, users can be fully immersed in the model of a new space, allowing them to ‘move’ to different places in a building and walk around in it. VR is now a widely used technology in architecture and is hugely beneficial in generating greater understanding for clients of their planned environment. Real-time rendering has further facilitated the process, allowing changes to be made to form, materials and lighting ‘on the spot’, creating further debate and discussion.

However, VR also has limitations, the most significant being the lack of user interface with each other. A person immersed in the VR model can explain what they’re seeing and feeling in a space, but others can’t see and feel it at the same time, which limits collaboration and understanding.

Then came augmented reality

More recently, architects have utilised augmented reality in the design of buildings, including hospitals and healthcare facilities. Still an emerging technology, augmented reality superimposes a computer-generated image into the real world. Sound confusing? Think of Pokémon GO — the app that had tweens running around cities a few years ago, chasing Pokémons that weren’t really there.

Without getting too technical, an augmented reality model of a healthcare facility is created by bringing a BIM model into a software platform called 3D Studio Max. From there, we run scripts that automate some of the development processes, then bring the model into Substance Painter, to add additional texture and generate the file ready for viewing on a web browser. Sounds pretty straightforward, but it wasn’t always that way.

When augmented reality first emerged, we created the model in a similar way, but it could only be viewed on mobile phones and tablets by creating an app (an additional step), which the user then had to download. The model also had to be superimposed over a real-life drawing or a real-life model (e.g. a 3D printed model). Now though, iPad and iPhone web browsers automatically scan surroundings, detect all the surfaces in a room, and allow you to place the model onto a table, a chair or even the floor. From there, you can rotate the model, navigate through it and zoom into it.

These technological advancements resurrected the technology for use in architecture.

How does this help architecture?

Augmented reality was not initially created for architects, but it is proving to be a highly useful tool to engage users and raise their understanding of designs. This is because, unlike VR, augmented reality allows groups of people to see and understand the same model at the same time.

This encourages communication and debate, prompts users to ask questions, to challenge design decisions and take ownership of their new healthcare facility. It allows architects to fully understand what the users want and what their key drivers are, ensuring relevant facilities are close to each other, departments have the correct flow, and essential medical items are placed in the appropriate location.

Even the most experienced clinical planners, people who have dedicated 30+ years to the design of healthcare facilities, cannot provide all the answers. Only clinicians and staff can do that — the people who will actually work in the new facility, providing care to patients. That is why augmented reality is a game-changer in the design of hospitals and healthcare facilities. Architects, health planners, interior designers, doctors, nurses and hospital administrators can all get on the same page at the same time.

Better use of time

To get the best outcome from user groups, it is imperative that the design is fully understood by clinicians and staff. This will enable them to have a better understanding of and input into what is being designed. The AR process has streamlined the time it takes for staff to understand the plans; therefore, more time can be spent on creating a design solution that is specific for them.

Augmented reality is also an excellent tool for architects themselves to make more informed and faster design decisions. They can see and experience spaces in real-time, and quickly make decisions as part of a unified design process.

The best bit

In addition to providing a consolidated design process in which the user has become a more informed and active participant, an additional bonus of the tool is its ability to fully inform all users of their new environment before project handover. Users are given the model and, using their own smartphones or tablets, can start to familiarise themselves with the layout and individual rooms before they move in. For example, in highly complex departments such as the Emergency Department, users can understand patient transfer flows or the location of the clean and dirty utilities in the department in 3D, before moving in.

Augmented reality helps clinicians and staff to participate in the design process, and in turn, allows architects to design environments of wellness with optimum clinical efficiencies.

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