Tactile Materials in Post-Pandemic Clinical Environments

Tactile and colorful materials will play a crucial role in clinical environments post-pandemic.

Benji Bagwell, Lead Engineering Manager at Ultrafabrics, explains how upholstery can be soft, colorful and robust enough to stand up to rigorous new cleaning regimes.

In the last decade, as the general public has become more design literate, interior design in the healthcare sector has moved away from a stark, institutional look to a hospitality aesthetic. Just as boutique hotels reflect character and comfort, and spas inspire calm and mindfulness, clinical areas have evolved from cold, white, functional rooms to become more welcoming spaces, softened by texture and color.

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Healthcare environments are refreshed on average every 20 to 25 years. Until recently, when specifying upholstery fabrics, interior designers specialized in this field have prioritized aesthetics, haptic perception (texture and weight), durability (tear strength and tensile strength) and longevity (abrasion, ‘double rubs’ and colorfastness. For polyurethane, a popular material in healthcare environments, the Association of Contract Textiles (ACT) standardized longevity through hydrolysis testing to evaluate its resistance to delamination (cracking and flaking) which can result from a combination of body heat, sweat and air conditioning

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A New Cleaning Regime

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the coronavirus can live on some surfaces for hours and even days. In order to contain the spread of infection, all surfaces in a hospital environment need to be first cleaned, and then thoroughly disinfected and sanitized.

Post-pandemic, cleanability has become front of mind for high-touch areas in hospitals. These range from furniture upholstery, seating and examination tables to privacy curtains and vertical surfaces such as acoustic panels. Cleaning and disinfecting protocols have been increased dramatically to several times a day and the cleaning products used will vary widely from disposable wipes to bleach-based, alcohol-based, quaternary-based and hydrogen peroxide-based disinfectants.

The complexity of these new cleaning regimes and the time taken to complete them has signaled the emergence of new disinfecting technologies that are currently being tested. UVC lights – ultraviolet light in the 254-nanometer range – can be used to disinfect and prevent cell replication in microbes. Electrostatics is another new method which involves tiny droplets of diluted disinfectant that are electrically charged, allowing them to stick more easily to all surfaces, especially vertical ones. Fogging is another option which is gaining momentum, given the recent scientific research that suggests that the spread of the Covid-19 virus could well be airborne. Disinfectants are dispersed in a fine mist onto all surfaces including those that are hard to reach, reducing airborne micro-organisms.

Whether these new cleaning methods become widely adopted, or existing ones adhered to, the use of woven textiles in clinical environments is simply no longer an option. The trend for solid, non-porous materials with high chemical and hydrolysis resistance had already begun prior to the pandemic. Now interior designers will insist on these materials, particularly if they have the same appearance and haptics as textiles.