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Designing a Colorado NICU: Thoughtful Design In Healthcare

Shannon White

Written by Shannon White, District Manager at Mannington Commercial
Jun 10, 2021

Creating a specialized healthcare environment takes a mix of skill, creativity and empathy. Denver-based Gallun Snow has specialized in designing spaces for healthcare, learning, civic/community, and church/worship spaces since 1988. Sara Parsons, principal, and Melyssa Feiler, associate, at Gallun Snow talked with us about the process behind their project with UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado.


The facility offers a wide range of primary and specialized health services, from birthing and neonatal intensive care to hyperbaric oxygen and wound care with a team of more than 2,000 healthcare professionals. 


But the part of the project closest to the hearts of the team was the neonatal intensive care unit, that cares for critically ill infants and those born between 28 and 42 weeks.



Mannington BioSpec in colors New Mineral Gray, Nautical, Lime and New Navy


Shannon White:

What was the design intent for this project? 

When you designed this back in 2016, give me an idea of the concept, the direction the client wanted to go, and how you began coming up with the design and the flooring finishes.


Sara Parsons:

Our architect was Stanley Beaman & Sears from Atlanta, which is now a portion of EYP Architecture. We worked with very talented ladies on this. They drove from the Denver airport up to Fort Collins and absolutely fell in love with the mountain range. I will say some of us who see it all the time take it for granted. They did this really cool thing where they angled the walls of the patient entries. When you walk down the hallway, it's not straight on both sides. It's straight on one side and then the other side is angled back and forth, so it looks like a very subtle mountain range.



We played off of the mountain concept with the floor pattern in the individual NICU rooms.



From the owner’s vision, we had two overlapping, but not exactly matching goals. The first one was about being hopeful and upbeat, and having a space that reflected the highly advanced level of medical care being provided. Contemporary and clean. On the flip side, we had some important opinions about being childlike and playful. This is what’s tricky in a NICU. Heartbreakingly, not all babies get to go home. For some babies, this is the only place they ever live. 


There are some parents there who’ve lost a baby. Some had multiples and maybe only one survived. Over the years, I have learned from NICU nurses to be careful not to design a NICU like a happy well-baby nursery with all the cartoons on the walls, and the baby colors and all that kind of stuff. But, I think it's important to keep it very hopeful and upbeat. So Melyssa and I worked hard to make sure we got the upbeat feel, without it looking like a well-baby nursery. 



There was a lot of focus on family and siblings. We didn't do pastels and baby colors. We really tried to make it something that the moms, and dads, and grandparents would appreciate and feel comfortable and hopeful in by adding all of that color in a contemporary way,



This is why these projects are so important and why we do what we can for these spaces.



So during this process, you're not only talking to the head nurse, but you're talking to some of the parents, correct?



Absolutely. We had current NICU parents and we had graduate parents who’d had a baby in the NICU and were still involved with the hospital and connected enough that they made time to come in and give us their feedback. I got goosebumps. It was one of the best parts of the design process. Those parents were so invested in helping. 


The NICU grew from curtained bays. If you were there with the baby, you would be surrounded by a curtain. But one of the things that's really important with these NICU babies and preemie babies is for mom or dad to open their shirt and have the baby unswaddled enough so their skin touches the parent's skin. This is a really important development piece. Can you imagine doing all that with a little curtain around you in a bay the size of a dressing room? Part of the project was creating private rooms where they could do all of this. 


Learning how this very fragile patient group is cared for was critical for Melyssa and I to put this together. It contributed to how we thought about the colors, the materials, and the flooring. Even the artwork; we wanted it hopeful and colorful, and contemporary and modern, but not baby nursery.



This project was about a lot more than just the durability and cleanability of the materials.



Mannington BioSpec in colors New Navy, Lime, Nautical, and New Mineral Gray



When It comes to flooring and the finishes, what were the client's requirements and what were Gallun's requirements? What brought you to the point of specifying what you did?



While we were designing this project, we were also working on the new ED expansion, where we also were using BioSpec MD. UCHealth is a fan of this material. But for the NICU, we really wanted to bring in color. BioSpec MD has so many colors available and it's also durable. It's a homogeneous floor. It's easy for them to clean. We wanted to make sure we weren't introducing a new material into the space that they don't know how to use. 



It's very easy to use in our palette of materials.



We started with a geometric pattern, but we ended up with a pattern with all these curves in it. It's easy to cut that out of the BioSpec MD sheet vinyl.



That's what I love about this design. Even though you did it in 2016, it’s still current. 

Does anything really stand out to you in terms of performance? Did you want to introduce anything new or was it a given to go with BioSpec MD?



I would have gladly introduced something new, but we didn't need to because Gallun Snow has a great track record with BioSpec MD, and UCHealth has a great track record with BioSpec MD. It was an easy choice. Melyssa's comment about the colors is important. As a designer, there's enough range in colors to give a lot of flexibility to put together a hopeful, fun scheme.



I think BioSpec is timeless. It's everywhere in every health system, and it's so durable that you never hear complaints about it. Maybe it's not the most contemporary visual, but it works and it has so many colors.



It was kind of like working with paint because we could be so flexible and creative with it.



Mannington BioSpec in color New Glacier and Mannington Realities, Maple Grove in color Saddle



Since you have worked with Mannington in the past, what stands out as a difference in our product and service? 



Your range of products stands out, and the new designs that you introduce, I feel like Mannington really hit the nail on the head with what we're looking for. And with performance, Mannington is responsive every time we have an issue. It’s always, "Let's go onsite, let's meet with all these people. Let's get it resolved. Let's make them happy." That's huge. It's just as important to me as the aesthetics of the product.



If you were giving advice to others about designing a NICU and material selection, what would you say to them?



Definitely pay attention to your audience, to the patients. I know it's a space for new babies, but it's really a space for their families. Consider how to make everyone feel inclusive and hopeful. Whether they're able to leave with their baby or not, it's such a big moment in their lives.



It's a place that could be really scary, but it shouldn't be. It’s stressful and it's all about the baby's needs, but ultimately it was all about space and amenities for the family. It was about community for the families to connect with one another and support one another through this process that many of us will never understand. 



When you walk through a labor and delivery unit or a postpartum unit, it feels so exciting, and happy, and you can hear the babies crying. When you walk through this NICU, the lights are down, the doors to all the rooms are shut, and the curtains are drawn. It has a different feel, so creating the right environment is important.



Mannington BioSpec in colors New Mineral Gray, Nautical, Lime and Navy



Our design team was amazing. We looked at everything. The colors and the design was Melyssa’s and my focus, but we had RMH Group translating the latest evidence around lighting. SBS worked with us to plan for acoustics. One of the biggest changes was transitioning from an open bay concept which meant no privacy for the family but instant access to the healthcare professional for a fragile little one. The nurses were worried that they would lose some of that availability in the new unit so SBS made all the doors glass and Melyssa designed a custom window film for parent privacy.


Our partners put in a lot of technology so patients stay connected with their nurses. Being a new mom is already stressful, so think about babies too fragile to go home yet. That just multiplies the stress. Melyssa and I, and the rest of our design team, had to understand the challenges and make the space address the issues.


With 26 years and 11 years of design experience respectively, Sara and Melyssa have worked on a broad range of healthcare projects. Beyond their professional expertise, they enlisted personal empathy to create a space in the NICU that’s supportive of the entire family during an exceptionally stressful time. They considered the optimum performance product for the space and found a way to use it to design an area that offers solace for families and function for the hospital staff. 





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Topics: Segments, Spotlight

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