The Art of Distraction: Tara Veldman on the Future of Healthcare Design

As breakthroughs in medical science are transforming the future of patient care, writes Tara Veldman, Managing Director and Health Sector Lead at Billard Leece Partnership (BLP), so too is architecture. Using what BLP has coined ‘translational design’, our multi-disciplinary teams of architects and researchers work in close collaboration with clinicians and patients, reimagining hospitals through art, nature, community, and place. Grounds include edible gardens; kitchens are designed so families can cook together, and rooms also accommodate parents who want to stay with their kids. It’s an award-winning, holistic approach that is having a positive impact on patient wellbeing.

“To reframe what a hospital space is and should be,” says Dr Rebecca McLaughlan, a healthcare environments researcher at the University of Sydney, “is all about putting things into the atmosphere that kids aren’t expecting to see, so their focus can shift away from their illness to things that seem far more exciting.”

Over the past decade the study of specialist healthcare has brought together the knowledge and design intuition of architects with evidence-based research and consultation with patients and clinicians that goes directly to their needs now and into the future. BLP’s translational design methodology underpins our practice’s multi-disciplinary studios in Sydney, Melbourne, and Hong-Kong, with state-of-the-art healthcare facilities completed in Hong Kong, Perth and Melbourne, two tertiary paediatric hospitals currently underway in Sydney – The Children’s Hospital, Westmead, and the Sydney Children’s Hospital and Minderoo Children’s Comprehensive Cancer Clinic, Randwick, and a recently completed dedicated paediatric unit in the new Campbelltown Hospital.

Experience demonstrates that a project’s success centres on articulating spaces by translating evidence and feedback from patients and staff. It’s a complex balance that when everything works creates spatial empowerment and empathy, and interiors that engage with art and nature, that are bright and flexible and promote collective wellbeing with warm, natural materials, subtly integrated medical equipment, and finishes that are light-years away from grey vinyl floors, white walls, and institutional furniture. They feel less clinical, are calm and welcoming and, importantly, blur the line between hospital and home.

‘Positive distraction’ and ‘atmospheric inclusiveness’ contribute to well-being, particularly when the imagination of kids is ignited. For kids, play is not a singular destination, rather a way of life, so our approach is to design spaces from the viewpoint of children and adolescents where play and therapy are intertwined, and exploration and fun are part of the healing process. BLP’s strength in translating evidence-based research from multiple stakeholders into the physical environment has produced holistic places of healing, where the recovery process is intrinsically linked to minimising stress, anxiety and pain, and providing a ‘home away from home’. Our team includes trained nurses and health planners who assist designers to create architecture that supports both the clinical and the personal experience integral to unpacking the complexity of the modern hospital, and the pathways to healing for the patient and their families.

At the Children’s Hospital in Perth, colour, shape and scale de-stigmatise the clinical spaces making them fun, inclusive, and engaging. Rooms have lowered window seats and visual treats at eye level, while seating areas are not just for sitting, but for climbing, hiding, and exploring and rooms allow for siblings or friends to undertake care together. In Hong Kong, the research team recognised that cooking was a very important part of family life, so kitchen spaces were integrated to allow parents and grandparents to bring in food and prepare a meal for their children. While art took the form of a puzzle and the adventure for kids is to find all the pieces that are scattered throughout the building.

For the award-winning design of Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital, BLP drew inspiration from architect Alvar Aalto’s ‘transparent’ Helsinki House and its connection to nature, spending time documenting the adjoining Royal Park and the atmosphere of the native bush. Most rooms have park views, and all windows have glass sunshades that allow activity in the grounds below to be viewed from the patient’s bed. Further research drew on the educational theory of Reggio Emilia and the importance of sparking a child’s curiosity. Here, distractions include a two-storey coral reef aquarium, a meerkat enclosure, and an installation by artist Alex Knox that allow kids at different ages to get absorbed. To understand the impact, a research team from the University of Melbourne obtained the views of 250 patients who described the colours and brightness of spaces as creating “a happy, warmer, welcoming environment” where kids feel safe (McLaughlan and Willis, 2022).

Our design of The Children’s Hospital, Westmead and Sydney Children’s Hospital Stage 1 and the Minderoo Children’s Comprehensive Cancer Centre, was co-created with clinicians, researchers, patients, children, families, and carers, in a fast, collaborative, and specialised approach designing for individualised care. BLP approached each project with both creative and technical expertise, designing with head and heart to shape a purpose-built, playful, and supportive environment for children and their families. Key features of Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick, include the ‘backyard’ as a nature-filled social space for gathering with family and pets, dropping into the café, or watching an outdoor movie. With families and research staff often on-site 24/7, the precinct will have extended hours to match, transforming the experience throughout the day and evening. While the second stage of The Children’s Hospital at Westmead engages biophilic design principles to create an environment for patients, with natural light, physical and visual connection to green spaces, as well as key learnings from other projects. There is the integration of a communal kitchen for families, a welcoming green park at the front door and vibrantly coloured walkways and ramps to lead families into the heart of the hospital. In contrast, the new Campbelltown Hospital, uses extensive artwork co-created by the community and first nations people to distract and uplift all those that visit, work, and stay there. Continuous light filled spaces work in harmony with detailed botanical graphics of local medicinal plants promoting wellbeing, healing, connection to the natural environment, at the same time offering respite for kids, patients, families, and staff.

Inside the development of every project, our team’s design process is highly collaborative. Vision workshops during the intensive concept design stage are key to understanding the issues and aspirations from the perspective of the client, including the stakeholders, clinicians, and patients, and central to the human-centred approach that underpins BLP’s translational design methodology. By fostering this crucial collaboration between design, research, and evidence, we can navigate the stumbling blocks to innovation to create a dynamic and open design process, and, most importantly, projects where the outcome matches the intent.

Article citation:

McLaughlan, R., & Willis, J., “Atmospheric Inclusiveness: Creating a Coherent and Relatable Sense of Place for a Children’s Hospital,” Journal of Architecture (advance online publication, November 2021).


Mark Mitchell | BLP Principal + Health Sector Lead

Tonya Hinde | BLP Principal + Interior Design Lead


The Art of Distraction: Tara Veldman on the Future of Healthcare Design

Adelaide Bell