Using Styrofoam to Design a New Lake Forest Hospital

Northwestern Medicine
News August 13, 2014
Three-dimensional computer simulations allow you to look inside a building that hasn't yet been built. But there’s nothing like standing within four walls and getting an actual feel.

That's where "Styrofoam City" comes in — a maze of life-sized patient rooms built out of blue insulation panels. It sits in the basement of Northwestern Medicine’s Grayslake Outpatient Center.

It's impressive to behold and a fascinating way to plan and design a new facility. A built-to-scale patient room or nurse's station offers staff a chance to walk around and test the layout and design, says Marianne Finlay, RN, director of Surgical Services at Lake Forest Hospital.

"Computer renderings are great to look at it, but hands-on is much better," says Finlay, one of 11 members of a SuperUser Committee, whose members come from a variety of different hospital areas. Members have been working with the project designers since January. When they decide on a new concept — for instance, if a door should be saloon-style rather than opening from one side — a carpenter is on-hand to cut new Styrofoam panels and modify the mock-up rooms, in real time. The rooms also are filled with equipment to provide a sense of scale. When real equipment can't be used, it is crafted from Styrofoam.


"Doing it in Styrofoam, you really do have an opportunity for testing," says Eileen Dwyer, RN, project manager in Facility Planning and Construction for Northwestern Memorial HealthCare. She oversees the SuperUser Committee and the patient care room design and process.

There are many factors to consider when planning a room, such as where the door is located, how to position the bed, where equipment should be housed and where physicians and caregivers should work. For example, in one mock-up room, the SuperUsers needed to think about how the anesthesiologist needs to be on the right side of the patient, the surgeon needs to be on the opposite side and the nurse needs to be able to move around during a procedure.

Staff and patient feedback has historically been important to new building projects for the Northwestern health system. Staff and physicians at Lake Forest Hospital have walked through the Styrofoam City to share feedback, as have members of the design and construction team who draw experience from recent design and construction projects.

Former patients were also included to provide the patient’s perspective. Maddie Dugan, a former orthopaedic patient and member of Lake Forest Hospital’s Patient and Family Advisory Council and Women's Board, said she drew on her experience as a patient as she reacted to the life-sized layouts.

"I was concerned about the patient's safety and mobility within the rooms, such as getting out of the bed and to the bathroom. And once the patient is in the bathroom, are there railings in the right places and seats in the shower?" Dugan says. "Little things like that meant a lot to me as an orthopaedic patient."

And with groundbreaking scheduled for Aug. 22, the SuperUsers' input will start to become a reality — not in blue Styrofoam, but in brick and mortar. The new hospital is scheduled to open in fall 2017.