Tucked amid trees in the forest outside the central German town of Eisenberg sits a new kind of hospital. This “waldkliniken” – literally translated as forest hospital – is a circular building covered in a wooden facade and rings of windows looking out at the tree canopy. There are also three restaurants, two fireplaces in plush lounge areas, and 52 verandas connected to patient rooms. Compared to the typically sterile and institutional health care facility, it’s in a whole new category.
Designed by architect Matteo Thun in cooperation with the German arm of the global architecture firm HDR, these features are the reason Waldkliniken Eisenberg is the winner of Fast Company‘s 2021 Innovation By Design awards in the Europe, Middle East, and Africa category.
Johannes Kresimon, managing director at HDR Germany, says the unique design of the hospital was driven from the start by a desire to make the patient’s time in the hospital as pleasant as possible. As an architect who has worked on many health care facilities, Kresimon says this is a goal clients often set but rarely follow through on. “In the end all the decisions are driven by saving money during the construction phase and having workflows which are as efficient as possible,” he says. “The approach here was completely different. It was really starting with the patient experience.”
Kresimon says the hospital’s managing director had a vision offering an experience that was closer to a hotel than a hospital. “Normally when you’re going to hospital you’re sick or someone in your family or a friend is having a serious problem. You go to the hospital with fear,” Kresimon says. “He really wanted to shift this.”
The design prioritizes patient and visitor comfort. The designers worked with psychologists to select a palette of pastel colors that would be most calming to patients, and worked to include soft, natural materials like pale wood furniture and floors within its patient rooms. Even hallways, waiting areas, and staff stations integrate these design touches, giving the building a warm, welcoming atmosphere.
Of course the hospital is still a hospital. There’s all the medical equipment, exam rooms, and nurse stations required to deliver care, but Kresimon says these have been designed to not interfere with patient comfort. “All the other processes were built around this experience. It wasn’t the intent to have the shortest way between the operations theater and the intensive car unit room, for example,” he says. “It was more important that the patient feel well and the processes can run in the background.”
This intention is most visible in the generous patient rooms, which all sit on the outside edge of the round building and look out on the surrounding forest. Most of the 128 rooms are double occupancy, which is common in Germany. And though this might seem unpleasant, the rooms are designed in a zig-zag shape to give each patient a sense of privacy while also creating the opportunity to interact with each other when desired.
Each room also opens out onto a covered veranda that’s shared with the double-room next door, creating a space for patients to have a social connection or a quiet respite outside. “This was driven by trying to find the best way to connect the building with its surroundings,” Kresimon says. “The circle is the best form you can have.”
He says most of the credit for the hospital’s design approach goes to the client, noting that despite the slightly higher budget than a typical facility, patient waiting lists and profits are signs of success in its first year of operation. Given Waldkliniken Eisenberg’s location, it may not be exactly replicable, but Kresimon says the concept behind it certainly is.
“Maybe the biggest learning is that if you have a vision and a great idea that is not only driven by budget, you can do things which are normally not possible,” he says. “I consider this the responsibility of us as architects to challenge our clients and challenge ourselves to not go the easy way.”
See more from Fast Company’s 2021 Innovation by Design Awards. Our new book, Fast Company Innovation by Design: Creative Ideas That Transform the Way We Live and Work (Abrams, 2021), is on sale now.