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Gundersen team blends security, compassion

Gundersen Lutheran Behavioral Health Building

Photos submitted by Kraus Anderson Construction Co.

There are unavoidable safety realities for those who help people in the darkest hours of their mental health problems.

The designers and contractors for Gundersen Lutheran’s new Behavioral Health Building in La Crosse found compassionate ways to respond to those realities rather than relying on the decades-old practice of surrounding patients with locked doors.

“In early principle listening sessions with staff, and patients even … what we got was the need for a feeling of privacy and sanctuary, the feeling that you have time to decompress,” said Kurt Schroeder, partner in charge and chief operating officer of HSR Associates Inc., the project architect. “You don’t want a place where you get the feeling of, ‘Oh, I’m locked away here.’”

The new building went up in the shadow of Gundersen Lutheran’s 40-year-old Inpatient Behavioral Health Hospital, which included limited interactive space and a glass-encased nurse’s station. HSR designed that building, too, but took cues from another, more modern site in South Dakota.

That meant taking tips from that building’s designer, which is an occasional HSR rival. Schroeder acknowledged it was not a typical approach, but, with so few innovative behavioral health buildings, it was a necessary step that helped the La Crosse project move beyond such basics as calming paint colors.

The new building includes a U-shaped layout that offers behind-the-scenes access and expanded patient wards; multiple, open nurses stations; porch-like areas in patient rooms; walls curving toward the entry of natural light; and a meditation room for visitors.

Achieving the mix of compassion and security meant a long lead time for procurement and construction, said Peter Linsmeier, construction manager at Kraus Anderson Construction. For instance, carpenters had to work roller hatches into the tops of door hinges for emergency access to rooms.

Then Linsmeier’s contractors had to test their work.

“At the start, we had basically mock-up rooms,” he said, “and you can shut something and basically try to break it or try to cause yourself harm on it and then correct that so you can make sure the patient is safe when the building is occupied.”

Schroeder said the open design has won the praise of staff members and attracted visits from people in the behavioral health community.

“One doctor from the South Dakota [behavioral health building] has said it’s one of the better facilities in the U.S. or Europe,” Schroeder said. “People are requesting to come visit and see how it turned out, for the building of their own facilities.”

Gundersen Lutheran Behavioral Health Building

Location: La Crosse

Submitting company: Kraus Anderson Construction Co., Minneapolis

Construction manager: Kraus Anderson Construction Co.

Architect: HSR Associates Inc., La Crosse

Owner: Gundersen Lutheran Health System

Project size: 56,000 square feet

Project cost: $15 million

Start date: Sept. 1, 2011

Completion date: Nov. 15, 2012

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