Partnerships@Work: A room with a view

Anyone who has managed an older facility knows that physical updates and innovations can pose a challenge yet are important in a competitive marketplace in which seniors have many living choices.

Michael Palmieri, president and CEO of Havenwood-Heritage Heights, two campuses in Concord, NH, knows this challenge well and constantly looks for improvements to set his company’s continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs) apart. Speaking particularly about the company’s older Heritage Heights facility, he says, “We’re trying to make a 50-year-old campus much more modern in today’s competitive environment, and we’re always looking for something that might be great for our residents, that’s different from what other organizations are doing.”

To this end, Palmieri took note of the “Luminous SkyCeiling,” a virtual skylight product, when The Sky Factory’s mobile showroom—aptly named the SkyMobile—visited Havenwood-Heritage Heights three years ago. Although neither campus had immediate building or redesign plans, Palmieri decided that when the time came, the SkyCeiling—which uses the latest light and photographic technology to create ultra-realistic virtual skylights—would make a distinctive addition to distinguish these communities in the marketplace.

During a remodeling of the Heritage Heights community in 2013, Palmieri and his team decided the entry area to the facility’s great room would be a fitting place for a SkyCeiling, and he reached out to the Fairfield, Iowa-based company. He had two goals. One was to add natural ambience to a dark and windowless area. “People tended to congregate in the area, so it was a good place to add a SkyCeiling,” recalls The Sky Factory designer Aaron Birlson.

The second goal was to help in wayfinding. “You can see it down the hall, and it draws you [toward the great room],” Birlson explains. He worked with Palmieri and his team to create a bright, sunlit blue sky dotted with ethereal clouds. “It provides that sense of arrival in a special place,” says Palmieri. “You see this beautiful, sky-lit scene of a crystal-blue New England sky with some clouds and a little bit of pine tree overhang. It did what we wanted it to do and makes a very nice statement.” He adds, “It took a couple of years to figure out where to do this…but we found a fit. Considering where we started and what we ended up with, it’s a stunning, gorgeous space.”

Pleased with the outcome at the Heritage Heights campus, Palmieri and his team decided that a SkyCeiling would be a welcome addition to the Havenwood facility. Havenwood features a nationally recognized “Main Street”—an indoor plaza that connects diverse activity venues, including a theater, library, billiards room, specialty boutiques and spaces for socializing and crafts.

“Despite all of the [Main Street] attractions, it was still a 500-foot hallway” and thus lacked windows and a connection to nature, Palmieri recalls. He worked again with Birlson to design and install four Luminous SkyCeilings, placed every 100 feet or so along the corridor. Each measures 2’ × 4’ and provides the benefits of natural light as well as the illusion of a bright New England sky and open space overhead. “The hallway tends to be dark, so the installation was a great solution. If you’re feeling down or it’s an overcast day, the sky composition makes the space feel vibrant,” Palmieri says.

Following the Main Street installation, a 4’ × 4’ SkyCeiling was designed for Melody Lane, a memory-impairment unit. The Havenwood-Heritage Heights staff was eager to provide the virtual skylight in this setting because research has shown the benefits—particularly the psycho-physiological “relaxation response” of daylight exposure for residents with dementia and other memory problems. Such exposure has been proven to have a calming effect for these seniors. “We’ve been very pleased with the response there from residents and staff as well as visitors,” Palmieri says. “It really has brought something special to the unit.”


Palmieri says that what sold him on the SkyCeilings was their realism and the difficulty in differentiating a SkyCeiling from the actual sky. It is this realism that is essential to the “biophilic response” (see sidebar, below) and health benefits associated with exposure to nature. The Sky Factory worked to achieve this effect in several ways.

First, the images are customizable, down to the types of trees, clouds, even window panes, if chosen. The Heritage Heights and Havenwood ceilings feature sunlit blue skies, fluffy white clouds and native New England pines for residents to enjoy as they chat with friends or visitors, move between destinations along the main street complex or simply sit and relax. This customization not only contributes to the realism of the installations; it also lends a personal element to each project.

It is at this stage that teamwork is important, both Palmieri and Birlson say. The partnership worked in part because of the back-and-forth collaboration between the teams (as well as between The Sky Factory and the contractor performing the renovations). “It becomes very personal because people fall in love with certain scenes or trees that have meaning, something very local," Birlson says. “This is especially true in senior care facilities, where memories are important.”

Second, realism is achieved because the images are scaled for each installation and to allow for various ceiling heights and angles. Even more importantly, the light technology patented light box has been calibrated to reproduce the true daylight spectrum. This accuracy is essential to stimulate the body’s natural response to daylight exposure. Finally, the “window’s” patented frame is recessed in a way that gives it a three-dimensional appearance. “This depth is what really tricks the eye and gives the most realistic presentation possible,” says Birlson.

Palmieri says that while Havenwood-Heritage Heights is always looking for a competitive edge in the marketplace, he would recommend the addition of this ceiling art lighting technology to other CCRCs and long-term care facilities. “We gladly show our competitors around,” he says. “We’re happy to share any innovation that improves the lives of seniors anywhere.”

Technology and the biophilic response

Thirty years ago, Harvard University biologist Edward O. Wilson, PhD, proposed his biophilia hypothesis, the idea that access to the natural environment can positively impact a person’s health. Dozens of studies have followed in the years since, many of which have confirmed the hypothesis and found that people are measurably more relaxed—and hospital patients even heal faster—when given access to views of the natural environment. So widely accepted is this hypothesis that designers and operators of senior living facilities and other healthcare environments regularly include as much access and visibility to the outdoors as possible when designing or redesigning housing venues.

Unfortunately, in some places, windows are scarce and views of nature are difficult to come by. In the 1990s, Swedish researcher Roger Ulrich, PhD, set out to determine whether the physiologic benefits of exposure to nature could be duplicated in the absence of the real thing. His studies found out that, in fact, the body’s relaxation response can be triggered by a realistic illusion of a natural view. 

Of course, humans have long known this on an instinctual level. Just look at the history of art, particularly the Roman-era artists of Pompeii, who created elaborate life-sized paintings of gardens, as well as the French art of trompe d’oeil, in which painters of the late Renaissance cleverly learned how to “trick the eye” with optical realism, scale and perspective to create the illusion of depth.

The Sky Factory was inspired by these traditions and by advances in technology, such as the use of defined color-temperature lighting, digital photography and fine art digital printing. SkyCeilings, high-tech virtual skylights dubbed by the company as “biophilic illusions of nature,” seek to combine those technologies to create lifelike reproductions of real skies, mimicking their true light and color saturations. The goal? Biophilic engagement or, in layman’s terms, the creation of relaxing and comforting healthcare environments triggering people’s innate positive responses to the natural environment.

Sky Factory designer Aaron Birlson reiterates that where access to nature is limited, a realistic reproduction of sky and daylight can improve mood and health. “Perception is very important in what we do. We are trying to do more than create a beautiful image; it is really about reaching people through a deeper, physiological and psychological response. It is about ringing that bell that tells the mind and body, ‘this is different.’ ”

Gina LaVecchia Ragone is a Cleveland-based freelance writer.

See other articles in our Partnerships@Work series here.


Topics: Articles , Design , Executive Leadership