redesigning mental health

Houston to be home to the largest academic psychiatric hospital in the country

The UTHealth Behavioral Sciences Center, set to open next year, will be unlike anything in Houston. Rendering courtesy of Perkins and Will

Film and TV portrayals of psychiatric hospitals have driven a narrative based in cold, clinical rooms and unwelcoming corridors. That picture couldn't be more inaccurate when it comes to Houston's first public mental health hospital in more than three decades. Breaking stigmas and setting a new bar for design, the UTHealth Behavioral Sciences Center is set to open its doors in late 2021.

UTHealth has brought on architecture firm Perkins and Will to design the upcoming mental health facility. The behavioral health campus will be the largest facility of its kind in the United States, becoming a place to train future physicians and specialists. Located near Texas Medical Center, the space will consist of two buildings connected by a glazed bridge, surrounded by a tranquil green space.

The 220,000-square-foot facility includes 264 new inpatient beds and will provide access to mental healthcare, substance use intervention and treatment, and medical care via integrated treatment programs.

"Knowing that behavioral and mental health is a critical aspect of one's holistic well-being, our team was thoughtful in approaching each design decision through research and with the interest of promoting health," says Diana Davis, principal and managing director of the Houston studio of Perkins and Will.

Creating the calm

Rendering courtesy of Perkins and Will

Each element in the space was created with the intention of creating a peaceful environment for patients and staff. From a warm color palette to scenic views, the architecture will play a role in soothing patients and offering a relaxing space.

"We were working directly with a researcher who had done a lot of work on the impact of lighting environments for helping to establish a stronger sense of circadian rhythm in the behavioral health environment," explains Davis.

Tunable lighting fixtures that can shift to warmer hues at certain times of day were one of the intentional designs featured throughout the space.

Insomnia can arise in various mental health disorders and can even be a side effect of certain medications. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 50 percent of insomnia cases are related to depression, anxiety or psychological stress.

"If you've ever suffered from a little bit of insomnia, you can imagine that that probably makes the treatment process that much harder. So anything we could do as design professionals to encourage a relaxing, sleeping space was very important," says Sarah Rolfvondenbaumen, a project architect at Perkins and Will.

Like light, sound can be a crucial element in creating an ambiance. The units in the UTHealth Behavioral Sciences Center is built for 24 patients — now imagine 24 patients talking in a room. "It could get very loud," says Rolfvondenbaumen, "We focused a lot on how to reduce that sound."

Rolfvondenbaumen explained how many hospital settings use two different types of acoustics that are "necessary to make a good space to be in." Sound transmission class (STC) is the measurement of how sound travels between two different spaces, and noise reduction coefficient (NRC) is a number value that describes the average sound absorption of material.

"We used a very high in our NRC ceiling tile where applicable. . .that really helps capture the sound that is bouncing around a room and displacing it instead of reflecting it back down," says Rolfvondenbaumen. The design also changes the planes of the space, avoiding the typical square layout and giving rooms non-90 degree angles.

Perkins and Will will also be collaborating with researchers at the UTHealth Science Center to research the impact of noise reduction. By comparing the space patients are in now vs. the new building, Davis hopes to conduct "a study that would show that, hopefully, by reducing the noise that we're also able to reduce adverse events and contribute to that healing environment."

Materials matter

Rendering courtesy of Perkins and Will courtesy of Perkins and Will

Outside of choosing noise-reducing materials, Perkins and Will made a commitment to using sustainable items within the facility.

"We had a very rigorous process of selecting the interior finishes to make sure that they were good for the environment or at least good for the people who are living in the space," says Rolfvondenbaumen.

Material health was a big priority because "in trying to heal people's minds and bodies, we weren't subjecting them to materials that themselves might be carcinogens or involve an excess of pollutants in the process of being created," explains Davis.

A welcoming space

Rendering courtesy of Perkins and Will

"It was really important to us in the design to deinstitutionalize the look of the building," explains Davis, "To try to keep the height down so that it felt a little less intimidating so that it felt more like it was a part of its community."

To help patients transition from the hospital setting into the outside world, the campus includes a therapy mall. Offering opportunities for patients to practice interacting in everyday life, the therapy mall was created to be used in a multitude of ways. It can serve as a salon, boutique, fitness center, movie night spot, or music therapy space.

"One of my favorite features of the building is that the way it is designed is that the shared treatment spaces that are kind of the amenity spaces that serve multiple units are located on the ground floor and all wrap around one of the courtyards," explains Davis.

The common areas like the therapy mall and dining room feature natural light and picturesque views of the tree-filled courtyard. "We were very intentional about making sure that the key locations of therapy all had that direct communication to the outdoors and that ability to see out," says Davis.

Staff perks

Rendering courtesy of Perkins and Will

The healthcare field, especially during a pandemic, can be a stressful environment with high rates of employee burnout. The CDC has even published extensive guides for healthcare workers and first responders to help overcome the stress caused by COVID-19 and the healthcare system.

More than solely a relaxing space for patients, the UTHealth Behavioral Sciences Center is designed to make work comfortable for staff members, too. The facility's Support Pavilion holds an education center as well as break rooms, on-call sleep rooms, and a mother's room for staff.

"The Support Pavilion has its own entrance so that people coming and going are preapproved," explains Rolfvondenbaumen, "They have a badge reader so that they don't have to go through security scrutinization that the public entrance has."

Planning ahead

Rendering courtesy of Perkins and Will

Every Houstonian is, unfortunately, familiar with the city's flooding woes. The UTHealth Behavioral Sciences Center project started post-Hurricane Harvey, so flooding was undoubtedly on the mind of the Perkins and Will team.

Evacuating a healthcare building is unideal, especially a psychiatric facility. Measures were taken to prevent flooding and keep the hospital running on generator power, so patients could stay safe in the building. Just below the hospital, the facility features underground storage tanks that could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

While weather can be planned for, a global pandemic is far less predictable. While the project with UTHealth was started prior to the coronavirus, the space is intentionally designed to allow patients to have flexibility throughout. Patients can choose to be in larger group settings or separate themselves into a breakout room, lending itself to social distancing guidelines.

While it's unclear whether Houston will be dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic at the close of next year, research shows the lasting mental health struggles the virus is creating. Davis foresees this project contributing "in a much more significant way" due to the unfortunate "need for care that we will have following this [pandemic] because of the mental stress and strain."

While mental and behavioral health has long-held stigmas, the UTHealth Behavioral Sciences Center will be both "welcoming and inviting," says Davis.

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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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