Mental illnesses are often suppressed and dismissed as being secondary to physical discomfort. Even with changing trends and increasing awareness, a report by Mental Health America cited that 19% of adults are living with some form of mental health issuesa number that has only gone up since the world started grappling with the Coronavirus Pandemic

It is a proven fact that a healthy mind can augment almost everything elserelationships, work, social life, and physical being. To this end, our physical environment has a deep impact on our mental health, in the ways that it deals with natural light, materials, colors, and even layouts; the psychological impact of well-designed spaces can be profound. 

Psychiatric institutions were often segregated from the main facilities and were not given the thought and the care while designing that they needed. This trend is changing, however, and more and more facilities are being designed as projects in themselves, that are changing the narrative behind what it means to be a healthcare center by focusing on well-lit, accessible, sustainable, inclusive, and interactive environments. 

The Ohana Center in Monterey by NBBJ Architects is one such project that is rethinking the way stigma against mental health is dealt with by reevaluating the design process and program. 

Californian Ohana Center for Health designed by NBBJ breaks the stigma of care - Sheet1
Curvilinear form that negotiates levels ©
Californian Ohana Center for Health designed by NBBJ breaks the stigma of care - Sheet2
Courtyards and terraces for relaxation and interaction ©

The Ohana Center is a 55600 sqft healthcare facility scheduled to open in 2023 that consists of inpatient, outpatient, and community care functions for children and adults with mental health issues. 

The word ‘Ohana’, which means family in Hawaiian, remains true to its name by providing spaces for community gatherings, and courtyards and patios for rejuvenation. The project is set on a hill which makes it hard to plan, but the serpentine form that NBBJ adopts negotiates the level differences masterfully. 

The curvilinear form does other things tooit reaches out to the landscape by bending and turning, forms terraces to take advantage of sweeping vistas of the valley, and turns around toward itself to hug the siteonly to form courtyards and cloisters where people can relax, unwind, and interact. 

Landscaping Strategies

The task for landscaping has befallen BFS Landscape architects, and it is undoubtedly one of the most crucial aspects of the design. They have efficiently used the microclimate and the oak trees present at the site, which is visible upon entry. Several shrubs and grasses with different textures and smells have been deployed for maximum variety. 

The large courtyards have movable furniture for customizing the layout and having larger community events. The project also harvests rainwater and uses it for the water features. 

Californian Ohana Center for Health designed by NBBJ breaks the stigma of care - Sheet3
Native plants and oak trees ©

Measures for well being

The project is far from only being aesthetically pleasing and well designed- the architects and landscape designers have adopted a series of measures that uplift the well-being of patients and staff alike, and these are evidenced by neuroscience research. 

Arousal Fatigue- According to research, staff turnover in behavioral health facilities is 40%to tackle this issue, the architects have provided small gardens and patios where the staff can relax and take breaks.

Immunity It has been found that poor mental health leads can be a cause in the development of other diseases. The solution for this is implemented as a landscaping strategy by the designers in providing specific plants that contain pinenes, which contain natural killer cells to boost immunity.

Executive Function- Movement of the body, staying active, and avoiding lethargy is key in maintaining healthy cognitive function. This is why the project places a gym in the center of the design to promote a healthy lifestyle. 

Personal AgencyIt is especially important for a person to find meaning in what they do, to have the feeling of having accomplished a task, to feel productive at most times. To help facilitate this and to relieve stress, the project provides gardens to grow fruits and vegetables in the hope that it would instill a sense of responsibility and ownership.


In a break from traditional materials used for healthcare facilities, the Ohana Center uses Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) as its primary structure. The structural framing is therefore formed mainly with timber columns and rafters, with steel as its secondary support. 

By using a natural material like CLT, the project has a positive impact on the environment and is also a cost-effective solution. The use of wood is also reminiscent of the trees that surround it, making it seem like it belongs in the verdant greens that it is present in. 

Another advantage of CLT is that the construction is modular, which implies that the structure can be prefabricated off-site and assembled on-site much faster than traditional construction processes. 

Californian Ohana Center for Health designed by NBBJ breaks the stigma of care - Sheet4
Secluded gardens, patios, and spaces for rejuvenation ©

The Ohana Center, therefore, is paving the way for architects and designers to rethink the design of healthcare facilities and to educate the community in combating the stigma against mental health issues by creating an open, sustainable, cost-effective, and engaging design.


Varun is a Masters in Architecture graduate from the Georgia Institute of Technology. As an architect, he is passionate about good design, interactivity with architecture, walkability, and dense cities. When not working, he tries to find time for sketching, going for a swim or reading architectural theory.