The sustainability of a product is more than just a question of what materials it does, or does not contain and nowhere is this more evident than in the complex world of healthcare design.
Healthcare facilities have a complex web of needs to be met in terms of staff, patients, visitors and investment stakeholders, which calls for building and fit-out products that provide high levels of performance and functionality, up-to-date design aesthetics, negligible risk (and even, the ability to reduce risks), regulatory compliance and high return on investment.
There are various evidence-based design strategies that produce the kinds of modern healthcare and aged care facilities that communities expect today: strategies to improve mobility and accessibility, patient and visitor comfort, and occupants’ health and satisfaction, as well as strategies that reduce risks of falls and injury, spread of infection, occupant stress or anxiety and noise.
If we take the example of flooring products, there are a great many aspects to the product that will determine whether a certain product is a sustainable solution for a particular facility. Durability, easy low impact maintenance, infection control and low hazardous content are probably the most obvious aspects. Today’s manufacturers are increasingly versed in the provision of information related to these, including a slowly growing use of Environmental Product Declarations and other product transparency declarations.
However, designers thinking about sustainability and product selection need also to consider materials which will improve the mobility of patients and reduce the risk of patient falls through features such as firmness, flush transitions, welded seams, slip resistance and energy absorption as well as aesthetic designs that have low contrast and reflectance. Flooring products also have a key role to play efficiently and attractively for way-finding.
On the other hand, staff members need flooring that allows ease of trolley movement and cushioning underfoot for their workday comfort. Add to that the need to ensure the material is incredibly durable so that it doesn’t easily crack, scuff or stain, or develop perforations in which dust and bacteria might collect. Enhancing infection control has led to improved cleaning protocols, new and improved surface finishes and is aided by the ability to fit coved right angles between walls and floors.
For greater patient comfort and stress reduction, flooring needs to have high sound absorbing properties to play a role in minimising noise in patient areas, improving privacy.
Evidence-based design suggests that staff productivity and patient health outcomes are improved where floor coverings look good, both in a design sense (non-institutional-looking) and in terms of durability so that they resist damage and look good for longer.
All of this comes down to material composition and product design. From a sustainability angle, material composition is, of course, important, although it is not so much a question of what the product is made of, but how the materials are managed over the entire life cycle that has impact. Floor coverings today, including adhesives and coatings, can meet stringent VOC emission standards and should comply throughout their supply chain with safe chemical use. Lower embodied energy and use of recycled materials are also expected. Product certifications, ecolabels and accreditation programs including Best Practice PVC support provision of information in this regard.
All of these design criteria need to be considered by manufacturers in innovation and development of flooring materials (and indeed, other products and applications). In Australia and overseas, we are seeing product development and enhancements such as in slip resistance, new LVT products, woven polymers, uptake of recyclate, adhesive-free fixtures, or product integrations designed to allow carpet to work well with resilient flooring palettes.
In terms of meeting the design brief, the product that best provides a package of solutions integrating healthcare design criteria, durability and return on investment is the sustainable choice. It is certainly more than the sum of its parts.