Award-winning research into architectural design of mental health wards

Tim Donaldson, a 5th year Master of Architecture student, won a Summer Gold Award for his project studying acute mental health ward design in New Zealand.

Tim investigated how healthcare providers can keep acute mental health patients healthy and independent as they obtain care. His project aimed to contribute to the development of architectural metrics that create a better patient and staff experience.

The Summer Gold Awards acknowledge the research achievements of students who take part in the Summer Research scholarship programme. Students are invited to design a poster or create a video about their research in collaboration with their supervisor.

“I was very excited to get a placement in this scholarship because it aligned with my interests so perfectly,” he explains. “It was great being able to investigate this field and help create design ideas that might improve mental health facilities.”

This project, to investigate the effects of the built environment on mental health, was part of a collaboration with the University of Otago Wellington Medical School. The multidisciplinary three-year study draws on perspectives from social science, psychiatry, nursing, and architecture to understand the architectural design, therapeutic philosophy, and social regime of the modern acute mental health unit in New Zealand.

“The statistics on mental health problems in this generation alone are staggering,” says Tim. “Everyone knows somebody that is touched in some way by mental health issues, whether this is friends or family diagnosed with clinical depression, or something that is so serious that it constitutes them moving to a facility for some time. And this is what the scholarship was about, adapting and improving the design of current mental health facilities so that it could improve the lives of its residents.”

The acute mental health ward is the modern equivalent of the old mental asylum but little is known about factors informing its design and use, or the underpinning philosophy of care on which these facilities are based. Tim was tasked with investigating the role of outdoor spaces, particularly courtyards, in mental health and wellbeing.

“I took a nature-based design approach and found four key areas to research further: design typology, smoking, activity, and materiality. These points became the drivers for the project, and I used them to better my designs.”

Tim was supervised during his project by Jaqueline McIntosh from the School of Architecture and Dr Gabrielle Jenkin from the University of Otago.

“Jacqueline supervised the architectural analysis and was a major help with report writing, structure, and composition. Gabrielle had collected the data and gave us her expertise from her case studies and observations in four mental health wards which helped me interpret the data. These two are the reason I won the award, I could not have done it without them.”

“We were thrilled to see Tim’s important contribution be recognised with an award, he did an outstanding job and was a delight to work with. The poster and his research will be shared with District Health Boards as well as the scholarly communities in both mental health and architecture,” says Jacqueline.

Winning the award was unexpected for Tim, but he’s looking forward to continuing research in this area.

“I would like to continue with this research and this type of design. It’s interesting as not many people think or even know about these facilities, meaning the residents are left on the fringes of our society. We have to do whatever we can to help them and that could mean designing these spaces in a way that is laid out in this research.”

The overall research, ‘Acute Mental Health Facility Design, the New Zealand Experience,’ is supported by the Marsden Fund Council from Government funding, managed by Royal Society Te Apārangi.