Designing the Built Environment for Behavioral Health

A strong foundation of health includes both physical health and mental health. Historically, mental health has been the element of foundation for overall health that has been stigmatized. Current research highlights the impact of mental health on physical health and now, overall wellbeing recognizes the interaction between physical and mental health. As the recognition of mental health takes its place in our current society and especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for behavioral healthcare has increased, making access to treatment more critical than ever before. And as we mentioned in our Top 5 Healthcare Trends for 2019 article, access to behavioral health is an issue the entire country is working to address.

As a leading building systems design firm, our team of healthcare experts have stepped up to meet this new demand, designing behavioral health treatment facilities across the Midwest, including the University of Kansas Health System Behavioral Health Facility and the KVC Wichita Children’s Hospital. Our design approach is based on marrying together perceived risk level within each space with other design factors such as patient safety, durability of the structure and systems within the space, aesthetics, and project budget.


To design facilities that are both safe and conducive to healing, our design team works cooperatively with owners and clinical staff to identify the perceived level of risk and prioritize the remaining design factors for every space. Subsequently, we determine how each element of the engineering systems can complement each space. From a patient safety perspective, these design elements include ligature-resistant light fixtures, diffusers and plumbing fixtures, and tamper-resistant electrical devices and hardware.

Impact-resistant drywall and Gypsum ceilings are typical design elements incorporated to improve the durability of the built environment. Predicting what might be used for self-harm or inflicting harm on others drives the selection and location of materials and products. While mitigating risk is of top priority, designing healing spaces also requires attention to aesthetics.


An emphasis in our design is placed on making behavioral health facilities feel less institutional and more therapeutic while maintaining patient and staff safety as paramount. To maximize the patient care experience, the built environment should support elements of tranquility and normality. Utilizing daylight or mimicking daylight with circadian lighting, sound systems in patient rooms, and incorporating plants into the design have all been shown to help in the healing process. Making the physical environment safe and durable without feeling institutional is often a balancing act. Being mindful of the budget along with the project requirements and wish list items, we plan and deliver solutions to fit the needs of every project type.


Just as there is no one size fits all solution to behavioral healthcare, the same goes for behavioral health facilities. To create an environment that meets the needs of all occupants, we take into consideration the scope of the project and the added costs a project can incur by specifying systems rated for behavioral healthcare. We evaluate the intended use of each space including clinical operations, the anticipated population, the regulatory facility requirements such as FGI Guidelines and employ engineering systems to best support that evaluation. Through these efforts, we’re able to create the perfect balance between project essentials and budget.

Henderson Engineers is dedicated to creating environments where people can reach their full potential. Working with owners, architects, facility managers, and clinical staff, we’re helping meet the demand for behavioral health facilities, allowing greater access to treatment for those in need. For more information on behavioral health facility design, contact Liz Greer.

Written By
Liz Greer

Health Sector Behavioral Health Practice Director


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