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Designing buildings with health and well-being in mind

Social sustainability is an essential part when Sweco plans and designs tomorrow’s cities and communities. By placing the users and citizens at the centre of what we do, Sweco contributes to a more inclusive and accessible society.

Meet Kaisa Narvio, who works as a team manager in different healthcare and well-being projects. Her role is to look after the user perspective in design projects. Recently, she involved the patients and staff at one of Finland’s forensic psychiatric hospitals in an architectural design competition, providing a space for those who are usually not heard to voice their valuable opinion.

Architectural design competition with the patients at the centre

Kaisa has worked at Sweco for 10 years focusing on the involvement of users, meaning mainly patients and staff, in different healthcare construction projects. With a background as a registered nurse, Kaisa is perfect for the role. Since joining Sweco, she has worked with over 30 healthcare related projects. Kaisa describes one of these projects as extra special.

In 2022 the Gamla Vasa forensic psychiatric hospital campus was set to have a new building designed to a very historical area. It is one of two government operated hospitals in Finland for patients who have either committed a crime because of their mental illness, or patients with symptoms that require special care and knowledge. The average treatment time is 6-8 years, while some patients live there for over 20 years. Gamla Vasa is an old historic area and thus not suited to cater to all the prerequisites that the modern forensic psychiatric care require.

An architectural design competition was therefore set up, with the aim of building a new hospital and Kaisa was brought in to provide her expertise on user-involvement. Her role was to engage the patients and staff in evaluating the five most promising design contributions.

It is still quite unique to involve patients in such an early design phase. Not just giving them the opportunity to give opinions on colours or material, but also the architectural planning of the building. We did not have to guess; we could ask straight questions. How do you view this solution? What do you think about this outdoor space? How would you furnish the patient room if this was yours? Previously I’ve involved patients in projects at general hospitals and children’s hospitals but to involve the people, like the patients at a forensic psychiatric hospital, who are usually not heard, that was new for me and very special, Kaisa explains.

Planning through uncertainty

There are Sweco projects that last for 15 years. The actual execution of this project only lasted for 100 hours, but a lot of planning went in beforehand. The workshops to evaluate the contributions were done in two days with a very punctual schedule, planned almost down to the hour. In this stage, Kaisa and her team had to consider new kinds of issues, like what they would do if the patients would not be able to participate in the workshop for three hours, or if they got tired and not able to concentrate. At the same time, Kaisa knew almost nothing about the participants before stepping into the workshops, as there was a very strict order of anonymity when working with patients. Despite not knowing how things would go beforehand, the workshops and experience turned out to be a success.

Better environments with user involvement

Kaisa and her project is a good example of how we work with social sustainability at Sweco. In this case, it has also shown the benefits of including not just the staff, which is more common, but also the patients. Kaisa explains that when looking at the different designs enrolled in the competition, the patients knew the outdoor spaces so well that they could point out the corner that had the strongest sunshine or which part that was the windiest. They could provide insights which are impossible to have if you are not familiar with the area.

Working at a company, which plans cities and designs buildings, I always try to remember that as we finish one project and move on to the next, the building and its features stay for those who work or live there. It’s therefore important that we keep in mind who we are designing the building for. Involving the users is a great way to make sure that we keep them at the centre of the design, Kaisa finishes.

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