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Have you ever wondered why some people use the term “physical environment” to describe healthcare spaces and others use “built environment?”

Perhaps not, but I’m here to tell you that I was a built environment proponent for many years.  I always used that term in my own writing and would change physical environment to built environment when I was editing other people’s work.

But here’s the difference.  Built environment only refers to those fixed things in the facility that use materials to create and furnish the space.  Things like walls, floors, ceilings, windows, furniture, fabric, lighting, artwork, etc.

Physical environment includes all of those things and more.  It also includes dynamic components, like air quality, natural light, sound, smells.  Things that might be affected by the built environment components, but exist no matter what.

Sound levels, for example, can be affected by the use of materials with acoustical properties. But it also can be affected by staff culture or the choice to view relaxation programming on the TV instead of “Law and Order.”

Susan Mazer, Ph.D., of Healing HealthCare Systems wrote in a recent blog post that “Noise only exists in the ear and mind of the listener. We hear something that is annoying, we declared the ‘sound’ to be ‘noise.'”

My point is that in designing healthcare facilities, it’s important to look at everything in the physical environment and how it might impact patients/residents, families, and staff. And, if you’re a design professional, you may not be the one who is choosing the programming for the television or creating culture protocols for sound, but you should be part of the conversation.

Photo:  Courtesy of HDR, Inc.

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Sara Marberry, EDAC, is a healthcare design knowledge expert, thought catalyst, and strategic marketing and business development consultant. The author/editor of three books, Sara writes and speaks frequently about industry trends and evidence-based design. She can be reached at sara@saramarberry.com.

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