The Role of Materials in Creating Emotional and Physical Comfort


Medical facilities must balance the necessity for easy cleaning and hygiene with the need for comfort. That often results in waiting rooms with exclusively vinyl or polyurethane upholstery, and no woven upholstery.

However, there’s growing evidence healthcare spaces with home-inspired design—upholstered furniture, sofa-style seating, more intimate furniture arrangements and softer textiles—can improve patient mood and outlook.

Washington, D.C.-based Unity Health Care decided to test whether a community-inspired design intervention in its Brentwood health center waiting room could affect patient and staff outlook. They worked with global architecture and design firm Gensler with funding from Sunbrella® Contract.

The design team proved that a new furniture arrangement in the Unity Health Care Brentwood waiting room improved communication among patients. The Gensler design team also tested a hypothesis about the materials used on seating: Woven upholstery in a waiting room is preferred over vinyl upholstery.

What seating types did patients prefer?

The waiting room’s original seating consisted of vinyl covered chairs with plastic arm rests connected in rows of four to six chairs with bariatric options sprinkled throughout the room.

hospital waiting room

Designers introduced a wider variety of seating from armless side chairs and large and small lounge chairs to stools for children, benches and modular sofas. Some of the modular sofas included an upholstered screen mounted to the back for privacy.

colorful hospital waiting room

The new furniture also featured a bright and cheery color palette of light blue and green for the chairs and blue and grey for the benches and sofas.

While all seating types were used by patients, the modular sofas were preferred, based on observation of the renovated waiting room.

What upholstery material did patients prefer?

To test whether patients preferred a woven fabric like Sunbrella Contract or a polyurethane fabric, the design team specified both options for the seats of two of the modular sofas. The back rests of the sofas and the dividers were all covered in Sunbrella Contract fabrics.

vinyl and fabric cushions

The bench seat positioned along one end of the waiting room also featured Sunbrella Contract on the seat and back.

During observation of patients using the renovated waiting room, the design team found that patients preferred woven upholstery seats 8 to 1.

With a general preference for the sofa and benches out of all the seating types, further research is needed to determine whether patients selected seats based on type, material or position in the waiting room.

sitting on fabric cushion

“We did see that people sat more on the woven seats, some of it might be comfort-based and some of it might be just where the seats were placed,” said Tama Duffy Day, a Gensler principal designer and health and wellness practice area leader. “I do think this study really confirmed with me that we can test vinyl upholstery against a woven upholstery and continue to seek ways to use it because I do think it brings a softer environment into the space.”