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Creating a Place to Gain Human Ability 

Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. The project was designed as a collaboration between HDR and Gensler, in association with Clive Wilkinson Architects and EGG Office. Image © Michael Moran.

This post is part of a blog series related to Dialogue 30, "The Livability Issue.”

“Bring the right minds and passion to the table to achieve monumental results.” This is our advice to clients and, more importantly, to ourselves.

Innovative companies that collaborate across disciplines are the organizations with the newest ideas. Until recently, it was a rarity to see this kind of behavior as a healthcare consumer or patient. Six years ago, the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab waved goodbye to “the usual” and set out instead to redefine the patient experience. The result is a unique model of care and a direct reflection of a truly visionary client.

Given the vision and requirements given to us by the client, we knew the best would come as a collaboration with another firm. HDR was the perfect fit. Their established practice in healthcare, combined with Gensler’s expertise in workplace and tall building architecture, created a powerful partnership for this game-changing hospital.

Each firm brought various expertise and divergent points of view. It was when we came together that we discovered more compelling solutions than either of us could have found on our own. The design is centered around what we collectively called “The Team.”

  • The players: Patients
  • The coaches: Care givers
  • The fans: Those who may not previously have had direct contact with the patients, such as researchers or administrative staff.

Success meant all these people coming together as one collective—centered around winning for the patient.

Rooms are designed with smart technology that facilitates comfort and accessibility for patients. Image © Tom Harris.

For me, the most challenging and fulfilling part of the design process for the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab was working to understand the unique struggles of the patients, asking myself: How can we craft a facility that nurtures and inspires hope for despairing people?

At Gensler, our design process begins with a deep dive into our client’s goals and vision to develop an intelligent and responsive environment. Dr. Joanne Smith, our client and CEO of the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, had a clear vision from the start: bring scientists, doctors and patients together—in the same space—to generate innovations in rehabilitative care for those patients faster.

By initial accounts, the new building is meeting that goal, because researchers and therapists can see the struggles of patients in real time and make suggestions, do additional research or create an alternative solution quicker than if they were in different buildings or separate wings of a hospital.

Just recently I toured the Legs and Walking ability lab with Laura Ferrio, chief nurse at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. She told me about a patient who was struggling in their therapy to walk a straight line designed into the rubber flooring. Then a researcher who was observing suggested to the therapist that the patient should try walking on a balance beam to trigger a quicker response. From the therapist’s point of view, this was something typically attempted during week three of therapy. The patient tried the technique and, within days, was traversing the beam successfully.

And there it is: The power of real-time collaboration created a faster response for the patient.

This type of engagement would never have happened if not for the fact that scientists, doctors and patients all commingle in the ability labs. The concept and complementing design has created a true model of “translational medicine”—the first of its kind in the world.

The interiors are planned to minimize architectural barriers through frictionless design. Image © Michael Moran.

I still get goosebumps thinking about how many of those conversations now happen every day and the number of lives that are changing as a result—including my own family. A close relative of mine suffers from a hereditary degenerative disease affecting her motor neurons. I’ve understood the visceral impact of architectural barriers through her eyes; a single step might as well be a solid wall. These subtle barriers are everywhere in our environment, and they unintentionally impoverish the experiences of people with mobility needs. That is why we strived for frictionless design.

On one hand, the goal at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab was to create an intuitive and barrier-free space, while housing the complex program, spaces and equipment required for a world-class research-meets-patient care facility. On the other hand, the design team was challenged with creating intentionally planned spaces and environments to mimic the world we navigate daily. Dr. Smith told us early on that this facility is not a spa—it’s a place where people come to work, and they need to work hard to gain new abilities. We had to design for both.

For example, each of the facility’s three two-story ability labs contains a staircase designed with research and rehabilitation in mind. These stairs—both tall and wide—are examples of architectural elements that needed to serve two purposes: connection and hope.

The stairs connect the two levels of each ability lab, which allow for collaborative breakthroughs to happen. Visually and symbolically, those stairs connect the team as one. They are also symbols of hope for the patients. For some patients, the stairs may seem insurmountable. So they are designed as a set. The first set is six steps—the bunny slope, we called it. It represents a tangible victory in successful rehab and a standard unit of measurement used in the lab’s research.

Beyond the bunny slope, a patient can climb to the top of the monumental stair with the aid of a first-of-its-kind harness system designed in collaboration with Chicago Fly House. The comfort of knowing they won’t fall on the stairs gives patients the confidence to attempt what might otherwise have seemed impossible. It’s a manifestation of how architectural and design elements become critical (low-tech) instruments of therapy and potent symbols of life beyond the rehabilitation process.

I will always have a special place in my heart for this project. During the six-year journey to completion, I got married, had two kids and saw the power of design change people’s lives from all over the world right here in my hometown of Chicago. And on some of the tougher days, I think about all the stories we heard during research and the testimonials posted by current and former patients. I simply get goosebumps thinking about the lives that are changing because of a true vision, a rock star team and the personal passion to make a positive impact on the world.

Anne Gibson is a principal and regional design leader for Gensler’s North Central Region. As design director for Gensler Chicago’s Health & Wellness practice area, Anne tackles complex problems by developing tailored design strategies for a broad range of clients. She has an exceptional ability to dissect multifaceted challenges via unconventional, user-centered methods of design. Contact her at Anne_Gibson@gensler.com.