Love, light and life

The ancient art of Feng Shui recognizes that a space has an energy, be it desirable or undesirable, positive or negative, stagnant or dynamic. Anyone can change the energy of a space by making changes that influence it—in either direction. A professional interior designer is trained to harness this potential energy for good, to design for optimum conditions to encourage positive outcomes. In the world of nursing interiors, these outcomes should include love, light and life.

Since a nursing home is also a business, these ideas may seem rather esoteric. But consider that in the very name is the acknowledgment that the building is also a home to our elders. Many owners and operators know this truth and attempt to minimize the institutional effect. In situations where funding is a challenge, improvements often are made by a caring volunteer or staff member with no budget. This extra attention should be applauded because even without allocated resources, actions motivated by the right intentions begin to create an atmosphere that fosters good energy in the home.


But how do we take a good beginning to the next level? A nursing home presents a unique challenge; it is a residence but it is subject to healthcare regulations. That complicates the goal of creating a comfortable home setting. After all, most residential homes don't feature eight-foot-wide corridors or commercial finishes designed to tolerate institutional use. Code may necessitate these selections, but they can undermine the feeling of home. Smart design choices soften the clash between durable products and a nurturing home environment.

By applying the elements and principles of design correctly, a designer transforms a space from chaos and confusion to harmony, from monotonous to energetic, and from unsettling to calming. The process is taking the principles of design—balance, unity, scale and others—and making them mold the elements of design—line, color, shape, texture space and form—into the desired result.

For example, envision a nursing home corridor that is 90 feet long with an endless repetition of doors on each side in exact spacing, all painted the same color—definitely a monotonous image. Breaking up that long corridor with changes in color, texture and scale (such as varied ceiling heights) can provide relief from monotony and create interest.

Confusion and chaos are other visual offenses frequently perpetrated in nursing environments. They often occur because function takes priority, and the casualty is visual peace. This problem can easily be solved by creating strong, pleasing visual focal points that cannot be moved or knocked askew. An attractive natural stone fireplace is one example of a stately feature in a space that can host other surrounding functions. Whatever messy activities are going on, the attractive fireplace stands strong, establishing visual stability and adding a peaceful, natural element to the room.

Making a space aesthetically pleasant is only half the job; the designer must also consider function. Good design will always ensure that spaces work well for the intended purpose. What might seem vast and empty elsewhere will perform beautifully in a space populated by residents in wheelchairs. What might seem like very high lighting levels in other situations will be desirable for elders with diminished eyesight.

Scenarios like this make areas more useful to senior resident. Combining elements in balanced ways creates spaces that are both functional and attractive, fertile ground for good outcomes. Residents, family and staff will appreciate spaces that feel appropriate, balanced, secure and inviting.


Good skilled nursing communities of today are a long way from the old rest homes of the past, and culture change is moving us even closer to the ideal nurturing environment. The small-house concept is popular for its resident-centered focus, and operators and owners are now finding ways to make it a financially viable option. The small-house concept elevates a facility from merely being homelike to being an actual home. With a design often centered around an open kitchen, the familiar smells of home cooking flow through the spaces as staff members prepare meals. Residents enjoy more intimate connection during meals, and the smaller corridors allow for ample natural light in resident areas. Accessible outdoor space for residents’ use is also an important component to this concept.

Today’s best skilled nursing environments strive to be places that not only provide shelter for our elders, but create a sense of security and well-being. In the process, dignity is restored to their late-life dwelling—a place where love, light and life should abound.

Charla Worsham is a registered interior designer at Pi Architects, based in Austin, Texas, a multidiscipline architectural firm specializing in design for long-term care. She can be reached at

Learn more about designing spaces that nurture the spirit in a homelike atmosphere at the Environments for Aging conference, April 6-9, 2013.

Topics: Articles , Design , Executive Leadership , Facility management , Housing , Operations