A Tribute to Robin Guenther, Green Healthcare Pioneer

Robin Guenther advanced new standards for hospitals that were adopted by the larger green building community and integrated into leading rating systems.

architectural rendering of a hospital lobby shows parents and children as well as a wooden seal sculpture in the foreground

With the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, as with many other projects, Robin believed that “having materials credits in a green building rating system, and doing a project that’s actually going to certify under a green building rating system” would help ensure materials selected and specified made it into construction. (This quote is from “Protect Your Spec: 14 Strategies” ). She helped develop LEED Healthcare—which differs from the Green Guide for Healthcare because it is a third-party-verified standard—as part of her commitment to this principle.

Image: Perkins&Will/HGA
We acknowledge with mournful hearts the death of Robin Guenther, FAIA, a leading expert in evidence-based healthcare design and an early, vocal critic of questionable chemistries that remain all too common in building materials. Robin died of ovarian cancer on May 6, 2023, according to a New York Times obituary.

Robin had long decried the typical 20th-century and 21st-century hospitals. She argued in her 2015 TedMed Talk, for example, that any facility designed to those conventional standards was part of “a sick care system” adhering to “a massive industrial paradigm that actually has very little to do with health” and thereby “contribut[ed] to the problem it’s there to solve.”

Her life’s work was to change that paradigm.

Robin advocated tirelessly for building materials and medical supplies that were less toxic. Not long after Perkins & Will acquired her architecture firm, Guenther 5, she was instrumental in helping develop the Precautionary List, which is relevant to all building types.

But material health was just one vital aspect of a holistic and then-radical new model that also embraced energy efficiency, water stewardship, daylighting, indoor air quality, and biophilic design. Robin helped create both the original Green Guide for Healthcare and the LEED Healthcare rating system, and she remained active with Healthcare without Harm as its scope expanded and its influence spread throughout the globe.

She was also far ahead of the curve in addressing resilient design in the healthcare community and worked with a team that included BuildingGreen and Resilient Design Institute founder Alex Wilson on the Building Resiliency Task Force in New York City following Superstorm Sandy in 2012. “As a committee chair on that task force,” recalled Wilson, “Robin masterfully coordinated the input of dozens of people and aggregated disparate ideas into concrete recommendations.”

Robin “quite literally wrote the book on sustainable healthcare architecture” with Gail Vittori, as Perkins & Will put it, and among her many other works, she also co-wrote Primary Protection: Enhancing Healthcare Resilience for a Changing Climate, which was published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2014.

When BuildingGreen spoke with Robin in 2012 about healing gardens at healthcare facilities, she hearkened back to a time when specialized hospitals for treating tuberculosis and other ailments (often called “sanitoriums”) were typically located in natural areas outside cities to provide restorative therapy for both mind and body. “Those were generally sites that were big and had incredible nature views,” Robin noted, like “bluffs overlooking rivers.” The buildings themselves leveraged passive design for natural ventilation and daylighting. “Now, a hundred years later,” she said, it’s clear that “as a society, we believe [biophilia] has been important for a very long time.”

Robin also remarked during that interview that some hospitals had begun offering “end-of-life choice” in their healing gardens. We dearly hope Robin’s surroundings at the time of her death nurtured and supported her and her loved ones, in keeping with her decades-long mission to heal healthcare.

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Published June 1, 2023

(2023, June 1). A Tribute to Robin Guenther, Green Healthcare Pioneer. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/op-ed/tribute-robin-guenther-green-healthcare-pioneer

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