Robin Guenther, Architect of Healthy Hospitals, Dies at 68 – The New York Times
Supporting the use of nontoxic construction materials, she co-wrote the first guide to building green health care facilities and designed them to be less austere.
Robin Guenther, an architect and environmental health advocate who designed green, sustainable health care facilities and co-wrote the first guide to building them, died on May 6 at a hospital in Manhattan. She was 68.
The cause was ovarian cancer, said her husband, Perry Gunther. (The couple’s surnames shared a pronunciation but not a spelling.)
Ms. Guenther, a New York City-based architect who started designing health care facilities after graduating from architecture school in the late 1970s, was among a group of environmentalists and architects who in the 1990s began to campaign against the use of toxic materials in construction.
She was particularly focused on PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, one of the world’s most ubiquitous plastics, used in everything from pipes to flooring to medical devices. It is manufactured from vinyl chloride, a known human carcinogen. Ms. Guenther began to look for alternatives, and to lecture and write about its dangers.
When she started her firm, Guenther 5 Architects, in 2001, she took as her mission statement the Hippocratic oath to first, do no harm, said Chris Youssef, an interior designer and sustainable design consultant who worked with Ms. Guenther on the Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn in the early 2000s, which was built with a minimal amount of toxic material.
Ms. Guenther’s awareness of PVC proved the first step in her understanding of the full health and environmental impacts of health care facilities. She and others began to catalog those effects, which included carbon emissions (hospitals are energy intensive); warrenlike layouts lit by artificial light that affected both health care workers and patients; and materials, including PVC, that could damage the health of the communities where they were manufactured as well as the spaces where they were deployed.
Ms. Guenther was one of many architects advocating sustainable and resilient building — for example, using renewable energy sources and designing buildings that could survive the extreme weather of climate change. And she practiced what is now called regenerative or restorative design, creating spaces that promote health with natural light sources and access to nature, and that connect to the surrounding community and support it.
“She changed the nature of health care construction,” said Bill Walsh, the founder of the Healthy Building Network, one of many environmental organizations that had Ms. Guenther as a board member and an adviser. He added that she had been a leader in designing strategies for removing vinyl from buildings. “She was not all sizzle and no steak,” he said.
One of her standout works was the Center for Discovery in Harris, N.Y., a 27,000-square-foot treatment facility in Sullivan County for children and adults with severe neurological impairments that opened in 2002. The structure, airy and barnlike, is made from renewable, nontoxic materials, and heated and cooled by a geothermal system.
In 2003, Ms. Guenther, working with a team that included Gail Vittori, a sustainability expert who had been designing policy initiatives and protocols and creating standards for green building since the 1980s, and Tom Lent, then the policy director for the Healthy Building Network, created the Green Guide for Healthcare, a set of environmentally conscious, health-based building standards customized for the health care industry.
Modeled after the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification program for rating sustainability in buildings, the guide covered a wide range of topics, including how to avoid toxic chemicals, the importance of natural light to support circadian rhythms, and the need to provide places of respite and connections to nature.
By the second year of its release, the guide had been downloaded 11,000 times in every U.S. state and in more than 80 countries. It became the basis for LEED certification specific to the health care sector.
Still, skeptics felt that green building in the health care industry would be cost-prohibitive. So Ms. Guenther, Ms. Vittori and others conducted two studies that showed that these projects cost nearly the same as conventional ones. In 2007, Ms. Guenther and Ms. Vittori published “Sustainable Healthcare Architecture,” which included case studies of more than 50 projects. In 2014, Ms. Guenther delivered a TedMed talk titled “Why hospitals are making us sick,” which has been viewed tens of thousands of times.
In an email, Mr. Lent said that “Robin understood at a deep level the responsibility of the architect, engineer and interior designer (really everyone involved in bringing buildings into the world) for the health, environmental and social impact of the materials they specified and the designs they created.”
He added that she had “worked tirelessly to wake up the health care industry and the design and construction firms that work with them to this responsibility.”
Robin Gail Guenther was born on Oct. 2, 1954, in Detroit. Her mother, Elinor (Brown) Guenther, was a homemaker, and her father, Robert Guenther, was an executive at the Ford Motor Company. She earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in architecture at the University of Michigan, and a diploma from the Architectural Association in London.
In addition to her husband, to whom she was married for 38 years, Ms. Guenther is survived by her stepdaughters, Jyllian Gunther and Nicole Palms, two granddaughters and her sisters, Lynn Monahan and Sharon Barnes.
In 2007, Guenther 5 Architects, in Lower Manhattan, where she also lived, was acquired by Perkins & Will, a global architectural firm; Ms. Guenther led its global health practice.
With Perkins & Will, she oversaw projects like the Memorial Sloan Kettering Monmouth Ambulatory Care Center (also known as MSK Monmouth) in New Jersey, a reimagining of a drab 1980s office building into an airy space with woodland views; and the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford in Palo Alto, Calif., which opened in 2017 and won a Healthcare Design Award from the American Institute of Architects. It features an abundance of natural light, water-recovery systems for landscape irrigation, a shading system to reduce the need for air conditioning, recycled building materials and a healing garden.
In 2012, Ms. Guenther was among the magazine Fast Company’s “100 Most Creative People in Business.” It noted that she had developed 12 maxims for good practices in design and printed them on posters that she displayed around her work spaces.
“If you don’t know what’s in it, you probably don’t want what’s in it,” one read. Another said, “Consult your nose — if it stinks, don’t use it.”
An earlier version of this obituary referred incorrectly to PVC, or polyvinyl chloride. Though its primary component, vinyl chloride, is a known carcinogen, PVC itself is not classified as one.
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Penelope Green is a reporter on the Obituaries desk and a feature writer. She has been a reporter for the Home section, editor of Styles of The Times, an early iteration of Style, and a story editor at the Sunday magazine. @greenpnyt • Facebook