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Southwest Centre for Forensic Mental Healthcare, St. Thomas, Ontario

November 2016
EDAC Advocate Firm Project
Neighborhood Patient Recreation Space, Shai Gil Fotography, 2013

Parkin Architects Limited

Firm's role on the project:  Planning, Programming, Architecture, Design, Interiors


EBD Goal 

To challenge the aesthetic typically associated with a forensic detention facility and support the client’s healing process by using color to enhance the environment and improve the staff work environment.


The facility is an 89 bed forensic mental health care facility dedicated to the treatment and rehabilitation of clients, who due to mental illness have been judged "criminally not responsible" for their actions and are mandated to a time of healing at the facility. There are three main components: a “house”, “neighborhood” and “downtown” representing the transition towards recovery and return to the community.


The challenge was to select colors that promoted healing for clients whose illness is varied and may react differently to color or image stimuli. “Baker- Miller Pink”, as documented in a study by Bennett (1991) to reduce aggression or anti-social behavior, has formed the basis of institutional color palettes. The overuse of certain blues and greens in mental healthcare environments has been reported to exacerbate depression and create an institutional feel (Dalke et al., 2006). However, some found there is no clear evidence that color affects mood, emotions, or psychological well being in any systematic manner (Evans, 2003).


A robust document review was undertaken including more than 30 journal papers as well as industry websites and design guidelines. Research found corroborating evidence that vibrant colors contribute to a more comfortable healing environment while reducing the stigma associated with mental health without invoking agitation and behavioral outbreaks associated with color stereotypes. To maximize the impact and positive benefits, careful consideration was given to associating colors with the designated areas.

Input was collected from clinical users who had amassed their own body of knowledge, stakeholders who had experience with color therapy, as well as anecdotal evidence from their own professional experience. Color palettes were presented to the clinicians for approval.

More vibrant and saturated colors were selected for use in the "Downtown" – active social hub, while warmer soothing colors were used in the residential areas, such as the “House” including patient sleeping areas. Larger spaces used vibrant accent colors, such as indigo, red, and violet, juxtaposed with warm neutral shades to create vibrant spaces to encourage clients, while simultaneously providing moments of calm. In smaller more intimate spaces, soothing shades, such as orange, were selected to promote self-esteem and optimism (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Self Help Resources, 2012). Accent colors in these spaces were limited to one wall. This strategy also reinforced way-finding to navigate the facility.


One-year post occupancy, an online survey of staff, clients and designers was conducted using a Likert scale, rating color effectiveness from “ineffective to very effective”. Respondents had an average rating of "effective" with no rating below “fairly effective". The only negative feedback was that the use of color didn't extend throughout the facility. Studies in 3-5 years will focus on: if the use of vibrant color provides lasting positive reinforcement, if habitation diminishes the benefits, if the response to color differs seasonally, and if color has any measurable impact on medication reduction/dependency.