Focus on healing architecture in the transformation of Södra Älvsborg Hospital

Closed psychiatric care makes one think of cold white rooms and rigid hierarchies between patients and care staff. But it doesn’t have to be like that. On the contrary, research shows that intelligent architecture can be a crucial factor in a speedy recovery. White’s experts in curative care environments have designed a new psychiatric clinic for Södra Älvsborg Hospital – and created an environment filled with the murmur of the trees and the healing power of daylight.

As the building to house the psychiatric unit at Södra Älvsborg Hospital starts to take shape, the focus is on the psychology of health. White has been commissioned by Västfastigheter and the client, Södra Älvsborg Hospital, to design an innovative, challenging and natural care environment with the needs of patients at its heart.


White’s research report on “Architecture as medicine” describes how restraints, threats, violence and sedation are dramatically reduced when the architecture is designed around human needs for safety and security and is connected to nature*. These insights had a major bearing on the work on the new closed psychiatric ward. Here, each patient has a separate room with its own balcony and windows looking out on greenery. The specially designed glassed-in balconies allow every patient to engage with the outdoors as their health permits. As well as this closeness to outside nature, nature has also been brought inside. The rooms are largely lined with wood, a unique and previously untried solution.

It was important for us to be able to harness the healing power of nature, both in the interior and in the views, and let in plenty of daylight. Lining the rooms with wood was not immediately obvious, as it is a living and vulnerable material. But we are convinced that, for that very reason, patients will experience the space in a different way, and treat it differently than they would a traditional solution. The emphasis is on the patient’s best interests and the environment is part of the treatment. Balconies with a view over greenery, decorative elements and living material in the patient rooms provide for a warmer encounter with psychiatric treatment.
Peter Johnstone, Architect at White

There is also an emphasis on the psycho-social environment. Every ward has shared communal areas, which can contribute to a quicker recovery. Those patients who want and are able to can spend time in the communal areas which are shared by the three wards. There are many aspects to designing a humane care facility. Apart from the social interaction, the aim was also to destigmatise psychiatric care, so the treatment here will be connected to other activities such as training facilities, a campus and open social areas for shows and meetings. This is unusual for closed psychiatric units, and the hope is that it will help to normalise the experience, which will benefit the patients.


White’s team has also worked closely with the business management at Södra Älvsborg Hospital to challenge hierarchies between those receiving and giving care – a step towards a more equal approach to care. One example of this is the booking system for therapy rooms. Instead of the patient visiting the doctor in his or her office, a dedicated meeting room is booked where both the patient and the care staff can be regarded as visitors. The chairs are the same, and the computer screen on which the journal entries are made is turned so the patient can see it. The decor is also designed by White – and like the architecture, it is defined by the belief that inclusive environments add value for both patients and staff, and need not compete with either safety or security.

The project has been conceived with patients and staff at the centre. We have been inspired by relevant research and dared to choose solutions which do not exist anywhere else. The building will soon be finished and we are convinced that the bold choices we have made will have a decisive effect on health and rehabilitation. You could summarise it as person-centred care in a symbiosis with person-centred architecture.
Cristiana Caira, Artistic Professor of Healthcare Architecture at Chalmers University of Technology and Lead Architect on the project

The new building will house almost 80 patients in separate rooms, but despite its size, it gives a sense of small scale and variation. Viewed from above, it is like a star, a solution which lets in plenty of daylight while providing the staff with an overview of several areas and facilitating collaboration and logistics between the wards.

The clinic is expected to be ready in 2021 and will be able to take in patients from the whole of the Älvsborg region. The project is also creating administrative workplaces which are needs-driven and adapted to the work in the clinic. The existing building which houses the closed psychiatric unit today will be retained and updated to accommodate the open psychiatric wards and administration.

* Healing Architecture: Evidence, Intiution, Dialogue; PhD thesis by Stefan Lundin, White/Chalmers

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