The world-renowned architect Michael Graves spoke this morning at Social Media week about the frustrations of inconsiderate hospital room design. 

Struck low by a virus in 2003 that has left him partially paralyzed, Graves described his rehabilitation as a constant encounter with awkward, uncomfortable, and downright ugly products and interior layouts that appeared to have been created by “experts” who had never actually imagined themselves having to use them.

His voice gravely, Graves recounted an anecdote about one of the first times he had successfully dressed himself on his own. Victorious, he’d gone to the bathroom to shave, only to discover that the faucet was out of reach. 

“Who is this room for?” Graves wondered, before deciding to look on the bright side. “I’ll just ask somebody from my office to bring me an electric razor tomorrow.” He thought. Before noticing that the plugs were located too close to the floor.

Animated with irritation, when he next saw his doctor he commanded. “Get in the wheel chair and roll in here. Pretend you’re me. Try to use the sink.”

“I can’t!” the doctor said. 

“You’re planning a $40 million dollar addition to this hospital… are the same experts who designed these facilities doing it?”

The doctor admitted they were, and Graves extracted a promise from him that they would build a full size mockup of any room to be built, before execution, in order to test it. Of course, this was a promise that wasn’t kept. And the same problems were repeated in the new facility.

“It’s amazing how stupid people are.” Graves said. “When it doesn’t pertain to their specialty, then they think it’s out of their reach.”

He showed a number of slides, including the one below.

“What’s wrong in this picture?” He asked. “There are three things circled, but actually, there are four.”

  • The television is behind the patient, far out of reach. 
  • Similarly, the trashcan is in the corner.
  • The female urinal is on top of the heater. “Think about it. Don’t think about it.”
  • The male urinal is clipped onto the end of the bed.

Each of these design choices makes the patient that much more dependent upon others for assistance; that much less empowered. And empowerment is what Graves seems to want most. At one point he struggled while reaching for a bottle of water placed on the nearby podium. Making cooing noises, a woman raced up out of the crowd to help.

“No, it’s okay.” Graves said, before relenting. Piqued, he quipped, “You’re the best. Let me take you home with me.”

Graves went on to detail the thinking behind the suite of new products that his firm has designed for hospitals, the disabled, and the elderly. A lightweight overbed table with a large handle to encourage proper cleaning of the most frequently touched surfaces. A transfer chair that increases patient comfort. Chair arms with “stand assist” curves at the end, that when used for support keep the chair occupant in a position of optimum balance. Wheelchair friendly showers without curbs.

He also described, regretfully, the products that didn’t get made. On the Chinese manufacturers of a rolleter that didn’t make it to market: “They were trying to cut corners, and we were trying to make the corners smooth.” Graves admonished, “You have to work with people who get it, and who understand that you’re a humanist.”

At the end of the day, it’s important to be the right man for the job. “We were interviewed along with some other architects to do houses for the Army, for the so-called Wounded Warriors… when we got there, I knew we’d get the job, because I was the one in the wheel chair.”