Wayfinding Challenges for the “Built” Architectural Environments

Just like the natural environment, the built environment often presents wayfinding challenges that can tax even the most sophisticated mind. Particularly in facilities with poor or inadequate wayfinding systems, visitors and even residents and staff can experience disorientation to the point of frustration if designers and architects don’t take into consideration the different wayfinding requirements of the built environment.

  • Correlation between the external and internal spaces. St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, CO, takes inspiration from its natural environment to create its wayfinding system. Specifically, the hospital oriented its hallways, corridors and elevator banks to reflect the relative geography in which it is located and for which the region is renowned. For example, the carpet down one particular hallway is bordered by a thick, wavy band of deep blue to symbolize the Colorado River, and a large sign overhead announces to visitors and staff that they are in front of the “Colorado River Elevators.” The wayfinding system is unique and innovative and ostensibly helps to orient people to their location on the hospital campus, but for those unfamiliar with the layout of the region, it may be nothing more than a naming system inspired by the area’s popular landmarks.

  • Multilevel spaces present multiple wayfinding challenges. Visitors moving from one level to another face a number of decision points exacerbated by their movement through vertical space. Appropriate information directories that provide clear direction and guidance to destinations on each floor as well as to other floors can alleviate the confusion, but oftentimes the vertical is sacrificed in favor of the horizontal, or vice versa. A lobby directory in one office building in the D/FW area unhelpfully offers a list of companies in the building by order of the floor on which they reside rather than in alphabetical order. Of course, most first-time visitors who may not know which floor their destination is located would instinctively search the company name and inevitably find themselves scanning a list of nearly a hundred companies just to find the one they want.
  • Poor architectural wayfinding elements. The point at which a traveler must make a decision in order to continue on her navigational path is referred to as a “decision point.” She may reach a T-intersection and must decide whether to go left or right. Proper signage is one wayfinding solution, but so is appropriate architectural design. The hallway on the left may be the direction in which she must go in order to reach her destination, but if the lighting is poor or the hallway appears to dead-end (it may not, but the design of it may make it look as if it does), even with the right signage she may hesitate.
  • The changing nature of interior spaces. Hospitals in particular are constantly in a state of flux, even in these difficult economic times. The Grand Canyon’s topography may change, but it does so only over millions of years, not over a weekend, but a facility can and often does expand or even contract, depending on the needs of the organization it houses. Hospitals add wings, move whole departments around, and expand its footprint to cover additional land as it grows, and too often a good wayfinding system that accommodates such changes is low on the priority list. Visitors, however, notice immediately and can find themselves late for appointments, circling parking lots in frustration as they search for new locations, and relying heavily on staff to navigate their way through this unfamiliar environment.

The built environment poses unique challenges to facility designers, architects and wayfinding consultants, but all is not lost. If integrated well into the design and construction phases of a new or remodeled facility – i.e., such as can be found in a Design-Build project – a functional, logical and user-friendly wayfinding system can be achieved.

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