Does anyone actually like going to the hospital? Putting aside the many regrettable reasons you may find yourself in one, most hospitals by themselves are not exactly enjoyable experiences. In Toronto, emergency room (ER) wait times are usually measured in hours, so the golden word for patients is patience. Strict visiting hours, coupled with overworked and unavailable staff, can make it frustratingly difficult for family and friends to check up on you. And let’s not forget how confusing a hospital’s layout can be—the many, many departments (and the corridors that connect them) mean many, many long and tiring walks.

The new Humber River Hospital, located just southwest of Keele and Wilson. Image by Nathan Christie.

But picture this: on your next trip to the hospital, you pass through one of the building’s many entrances for a short 30 foot walk straight into the department you need—emergency, cardiology, intensive care—whichever. If admitted, the spacious, well-lit room you receive is yours and yours alone, complete with your own bathroom, TV, internet access, and even furnished with a sofa bed where a visiting spouse/sibling/parent/friend can sleep and stay with you overnight. If your nurse is not immediately available to come to your room, your bedside monitor lets you email or video chat with them), and your important medical charts will always be on hand for you (and your visitors if you give permission) to see. You won’t even see what’s happening behind the scenes, involving digital notifications, pneumatic tube systems and blood-testing robots.

Diorama of the hospital site. Not intended as an accurate representation of its final appearance. Image by Nathan Christie.

Is this science fiction? Come October, it will be reality in Toronto, when the new Humber River Hospital (or HRH) opens in western North York. Designed by HDR Architects, this state of the art facility is being billed as North America’s first fully digital hospital, displaying futuristic features unlike anything yet to be seen in the city—in some cases the entire continent at large. Located at Keele Street and Wilson Avenue—daily commuters on the 401 are already familiar with the main building’s emergent rise on the highway’s north side—the new hospital is one of the largest in Toronto at 14 storeys high and 183 metres (600 feet) across east-to-west. Within its 1.8 million square feet of space, the hospital will hold 656 inpatient beds, with 80% of those being single inpatient rooms. If you’re the type to judge a building’s capacity by the number of parking spots available, then you may be happy to hear that the site’s 2,025 parking spaces are spread across two parking garages, as well as short-term lots for dialysis and emergency patients.

The eastern face of the building. Image by Nathan Christie.

The new hospital will act as a single, centralized location for HRH. After all, if you were to ask a Torontonian today about that hospital by the Humber River, they may respond with, “Which one?” That’s because “Humber River Hospital”—as it operates now—is actually a network of three different campuses, all located on the west side of North York near the Humber River; York-Finch (southwest of Jane Street and Finch Avenue), Church Street (northwest of Jane and Church), and Keele (east side of Keele between Lawrence and Eglinton Avenues). According to the hospital’s website, all three combined serve a catchment area of more than 850,000 people in the northwest GTA, with approximately 3,400 staff, 700 physicians and 400 volunteers. Altogether, the HRH network is among the largest in Canada when it comes to acute care.

Despite that, the hospital network has been having problems maintaining its three outdated facilities. The emergency departments are among the busiest in the city: according to a report released last September by the Canadian Institute for Health Information, visitors to HRH’s emergency departments face an average wait time of more than three hours. Overcrowding is a big issue: the emergency ward at the Finch site was intended to handle 15,000 patients annually, but today that number is closer to 50,000. Similar pressures are faced in the emergency ward at the Church site. As expected then, patients’ rooms are crowded, with little to no privacy, and the inefficient and outdated layouts mean plenty of needless walking for patients, visitors, doctors, and staff alike, wasting time and sanity.

The hospital as seen from the north-west. Image by Nathan Christie.

In contrast, there need be no concerns about the new building’s capacity. Upon opening day, the new building will already possess over 100 more beds than the three current campuses combined. Furthermore, HRH expects the facility to handle about 130,000 visits to the emergency ward within its first year. As HRH centralizes in its new home, the campuses at Jane-Church and Keele will close, while the York-Finch campus will transform into an ambulatory and urgent care centre.

Structurally, the building’s clean, rectangular shape outside perfectly conveys its simple, orderly nature inside. Two major corridors dominate the main floor of the hospital. The east-west corridor, 600 feet long and 32 feet wide, runs parallel across the south (401-facing) side of the building.

The east-west corridor. South-facing windows are on the right side. Image by Nathan Christie.

The east-west corridor as it will hopefully look when the hospital opens in October. Image courtesy of Plenary Health Care.

The second main access runs north-south through the building’s centre. This huge passageway will also work as the retail space for the hospital, featuring coffee shops and information desks. On the lower level, a community piazza will feature a food court; in the summertime, patrons will be able to go outside and sit on a terraced lawn.

The "Allée" will provide quick and easy access between the north and south sides. Image by Nathan Christie.

One of the more striking design features of the hospital are the gigantic art installations on the north and south facades. Titled “Aspen Grove”, these glass murals recall a colourful woodland scene, representing the harmonization of the hospital with the local community.

Humber River Hospital's art installation, "Aspen Grove", as seen on the south side of the building. Image by Nathan Christie.

Regarding the inspiration for the piece, Gerard Power, HRH’s Director of Public & Corporate Communications, explains, “It speaks to the variety of our community. An aspen grove—though it has different colours, different shapes, and different sizes—they all actually come from one root system. The trees don't have individual roots; they’re connected. That's our community.”

A closer look at "Aspen Grove". Image by Nathan Christie.

Community involvement is a significant feature of HRH’s new design, and those practices are not only there to be easy for the eyes, there are some practical implementations too. For example, the south-facing windows on the main podium feature striped glass, distinctive for two reasons.

The bird- and eco-friendly striped glass windows on the hospital's southern exterior. Image by Nathan Christie.

First, the glass is energy efficient, reducing glare and solar heat gain. For if there is one immediate impression made while walking through the main floor on a bright, shiny morning, it is that there is plenty of natural sunlight. Second, the striping acts as a visible warning for any bird that would otherwise fly right into the window, saving it from what is often a fatal collision.

Multiple entrances are placed across the building’s perimeter, including an emergency entrance for ambulances, allowing for easy curbside access for any vehicle looking to drop off a patient. Speaking of ambulances, the ambulance garage will feature mass decontamination showers. In the event of a serious public emergency like a chlorine gas spill, these showers can handle up to 100 people at a time. As well, there’s a second triage centre right next door to the garage, making emergency ambulance services as efficient as possible.

The ambulance garage. Image by Nathan Christie.

The emphasis on natural light, the wide and long passageways friendly to foot traffic, and the many entranceways accessible to vehicles, all of these may have visitors thinking they are more likely to catch a flight than see a doctor. And they wouldn’t be too far off the mark, for the new HRH building indeed takes its design cues from an airport terminal.

Take the multiple entrances for instance, or as HRH names them, “Portals of Care”. Each entrance is assigned to a specific, colour-coded department. As Power explains, “If you are going to Air Canada, you are going through the Air Canada door. If you are going to Southwest Airlines, you are going through the Southwest door. Here at the hospital, if you are going to the chemotherapy, there is a door where you will get dropped off, and the clinic is just across the hall.”

The southern exterior of the hospital. The West Parkade can be seen in the back left. Image by Nathan Christie.

So if you were to visit the chemotherapy clinic, you would only need to walk through the door, walk 32 feet into the building, and that’s it—you would already be at the clinic’s reception. As each department is close to their own entrance instead of one main entrance for the entire hospital, there is no need for a patient walk across the building to reach an otherwise hard-to-find area. In developing the interior design of the hospital, HRH worked with General Electric’s Hospital of the Future team to model several different layouts, figuring out the most efficient way to have patient care delivered safely, while cutting down on the time it takes for doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff to move from department to department.

The entrance to the cardiology department. Each department is colour-coded. Image by Nathan Christie.

Indeed, while the building is much longer than it is wide, it actually functions on a north-to-south axis. As a patient requires more care, they will move from the entrance to the reception to deeper into the building where the inpatient departments reside. And that is where we will go in a second part to this tour, checking out the comfortable new single-patient rooms, as well as the mechanical backbone of the hospital that more closely resembles a robotics factory, and we will also look at what exactly makes HRH the first fully “digital” hospital of its size in North America.

Humber River Hospital, view looking northwest. Image courtesy of Plenary Health Care

Wand more information on the new hospital? Check out our dataBase file for the project, below. Or if you'd like to tell us what your take is on what you've seen so far, you can join in the conversation in the associated Forum thread for the project, or leave a comment in the space provided on this page.

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