An interior planner‘s view on the new Parents, Baby, and Family Centre in the Children’s Hospital Dritter Orden Passau

An interview with interior planner Sigrid Stjerneby

As an interior architect, which special requirements did you face in this project?

I would like to point out that I am not an interior architect in a classical sense. I have a background in free arts, I am a painter and sculptor and 25 years ago I founded a planning office together with my husband because we do not understand art within architecture (so called „Kunst am Bau“) as some kind of decoration, but consider the whole space/building itself as a work of art. The needs of the users provide the basis from which the design develops. 

The particular challenge in designing a neonatology unit probably basically lies in the complexity by the various specialist planners who particularly focus on technical or hygienic aspects. This can lead to limitations when it comes to imaginative design. The governmental and legal requirements might cause further restrictions.

In the project in Passau, we jumped on the bandwagon. The floorplan had already been defined and the construction team had already widely been formed. The vision of Professor Keller, who had „infected“ us with the idea of a family-centred unit, had a huge impact on everything. We often had to go to the limits of the possible to come within reach of this vision, that is for example, to bring together the technical requirements and the ideas regarding design while at the same time everything had to remain within the given budget. Especially with regard to the furniture for the parents and child rooms, we often reached our limits. Chosing the right colours is a tricky issue, as people often are quite sensitive about this subject. But this is not primarily determined by personal taste, but more about the effects of colours, light, and forms. The ambient design should gently and quietly accomodate the child and reaffirm the staff on the unit in their approach. It has also been an enormous effort to reconstruct the unit while it continued in operation. I have great respect for the architect, the specialist planner, the craftsmen involved and the staff at the unit, who at the same time had to run their normal day-to-day operations!

Could you please elaborate on the spatial concept of the new EBZ, focusing on the interior design aspects?

The parent-child-retreat is in the foreground and forms the centre of all functional spaces of the unit and that allow for short communication channels and distances for the staff. Through seating areas and colour and light designs, an inviting reception area, and an open base, we created a rhythmic structure of the long corridors. Our “Room of Tranquility” is one of the centrepieces of the building. We intensively discussed the design of this room together with the team. It should be luminous, provide strength, interconfessional, and not closed. A place that can potentially also serve as a place of retreat for staff members. Overall, I would have wished the unit to be provided with more space.

Given the challenges of combing the highest medical equipment for an intensive care unit and of at the same time creating a homely atmosphere, how did you manage to find an appropriate design solution?

I think the key lies in giving up on a fixed idea of what a neonatal intensive care unit should look like. In the beginning, I always chose a design based on a theme which covers the vision the house stands for. You can consider this as ist corporate identity.

In Passau, the monastic house and its patron saint, were my point of reference. The patron saint of this house is St Francis of Assisi. It was immediately clear for everyone that the basic atmosphere of the unit could be based on the Canticle of Brother Sun by St Francis. I carefully listed to the atmosphere in a workshop of different staff members, to get an idea of what the „sound of the unit“ could be like and from this, I composed a melody. It is a subtle interaction between colour, form, and light design.

In general, chosing the right colour is of vital importance. This concerns the colour composition, but also the application of paint. In the corridor areas, we used the glazing technique. The complete colour wheel extends through the unit with its discreet motifs taken from flora, fauna, and astronomy. The light design and all surfaces, like the floor, tiles, furniture, for example, up to the door labels all refer to one special sound. We designed special panel curtains that create a pleasant warm atmosphere. In Passau, special attention was given to integrating the medical equipment into the furniture. This was a particular challenge which could only be accomplished with the support of experts and furniture makers from the hotel and boat building industry and the architect, while involving the staff members of the unit.

Could you give us an insight into the collaboration with the architects during the reconstruction process?

For architects and specialist planners, a holistic design approach, which we aspire, is not common.  That means that everyone needs to show willingness to carefully listen to the construction meetings. For an artist, this likewise is a good exercise to get a better understanding of the thoughts and language of the specialist engineers. I shall not hide the fact that we sometimes had to overcome difficulties, but ultimately, however, we have always found a good solution.

Which challenges did you face during the interior design process?

It is a balancing act between DIN standards, hygiene standards, costs, and the „simple“ wish to create a temporary home for parents and children, as well as to build an optimal work space for the staff. When one thinks about home, often feelings, memories of odours, sounds, colours, come up because this emotionally touches us. This is exactly what we wanted to achieve at the new unit, expressing by creative means: here, you are welcome and safe. At the same time, we also wanted to provide future visitors an element of personal freedom; therefore the furniture leaves room for personal things, also in the sanitary facilities. I was personally committed to leaving marks which express: this space was created by people for people. This is why we painted over 50 panels with different motifs and, this way, gave every room a personal touch. A photo exhibition in sub-areas of the corridors also bears witness to the personalities of our little patients.

Which experience did you gain in this project that you would like to share with other builders and users of similar projects?

Certainly, neonatology units are comparable in many respects, but ultimately, (re-)building such a unit is a very individual task which is strongly influenced by the concept or corporate culture that is lived there. Whether you deal with a new or an existing building, also is crucially important. Last, but not least, the region is decisive and can also be a source of inspiration. I recommend to allow time for a so called planning stage 0, in which the task can be determined from different perspectives. Include, even if only partially, all staff members and leave space for creativity. In a project that extends over a period of 2 or 3 years, new developments and experiences have to be considered.

In my view, the given government-funded financial scope often does not cover the real demand. Some areas are configured too small. This complicates work processes and also has an effect on the well-being of people. If, for example, handovers have to take place in a comparatively small room, you often have the feeling of „thick air“ despite the ventilation system. Man, after all, is a sentient being. From the outside, it is often difficult for me to have understanding for the given regulations when experiencing the everyday conditions at the unit. There I would wish for more exchange between payers, users, and planners. We rely upon teamwork. When everyone gives their best, you achieve a smooth result.