Williston architecture firm promotes pandemic-safe design


Special to the Observer 

Williston-based Environments for Health, an architecture firm specializing in health care projects, has found itself thrust into a national discussion around how to best design safe healthcare spaces amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Experts at the company propose using ultraviolet light technology for contactless cleaning and infection control, creating patient rooms that are more flexible and making telehealth a more widely used option for getting patients in front of a healthcare professional, particularly for underserved populations. 

Jennifer Arbuckle, a partner at Environments for Health, has been at the firm for more than 25 years. She moved to Vermont after graduating from Syracuse University. She smiles as she calls Vermont her home and the place she wants to live her life. 

“I decided in sixth grade that I wanted to be an architect and I really never changed my mind,” Arbuckle said. 

Environments for Health recently finished a renovation on the main hospital campus at the University of Vermont Medical Center. 

“There was a lot of design, thought and effort,” Arbuckle said of the UVM project. 

With the new renovation, more multi-purpose patient rooms were added to give more flexibility. 

“We try to design around flexibility, so making sure that the space we design for (hospitals) can be repurposed quickly with what they need,” Arbuckle said. 

With limits on staff and patient movement, there is less chance of spreading a virus or disease like COVID-19. Technologies like ultraviolet light create an opportunity to design buildings that can passively minimize infections. 

“UV light has not been used for cleaning on a small scale previously because it is expensive and takes time,” Arbuckle said, adding that direct exposure can be harmful to humans. “Is there a way to build in a safe amount of UV light that continuously cleans?” 

Building in a safe amount of UV light would limit wasted materials such as wipes and disinfectant spray while also limiting human contact with infected surfaces, Arbuckle said. 

A r b u c k le said a silver lining in the COVID-19 pandemic is how telehealth, a new feature in most healthcare facilities that eliminates the need to physically attend an appointment, will help underserved communities. People without transportation or time to travel are now able to virtually meet with their healthcare provider. Arbuckle predicts telehealth will remain popular after the pandemic is over. 

“There is a whole host of underserved people who will have better healthcare as a result of some of these changes,” Arbuckle said. “Boston Children’s Hospital predicted 40 telehealth visits a month. As of May, they were at 2,000. That’s a big change.” 

Arbuckle’s clients include Elizabethtown Community Hospital and Blythedale Children’s Hospital in Valhalla, N.Y. She feels an especially strong connection with the Blythedale Children’s Rehabilitation Hospital, an organization she has been working with since 2003. Environments for Health has overseen major upgrades to the hospital, including a bed replacement project and a pediatric long term care plan. 

“The mission of the hospital creates some deep things as you think about the design and trying to create the right place for patients and families there,” she said. 

Environments for Health has eight offices in the eastern and southern U.S. The company is looking to expand West. 

Camille Sweet is a reporter with the Community News Service, a collaboration with the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.