Chalkhill Unit case study

Chalkhill Unit, Princess Royal Hospital, West Sussex


The Chalkhill Unit is a residential unit catering specifically for children and young people with acute mental health problems. Designed with great care, it provides a high level of access to outdoors, and even the internal spaces reflect the surrounding environment.

Project description

Workshops were conducted with the children and young people who were to use the new building, to explore their attitudes to themes, images and colours. The youngsters chose ‘nature’ as the theme for both the interior and the outside spaces and gardens, as they felt that woodland and seaside were places they wanted to be. A team of architects, interior designers and landscape architects then took these ideas forward.

Trees and planting: The original native pine heath-land encloses the site to the north and there are expansive views out to the south through the pines towards the South Downs. Pine trees close to the building have been preserved; the glass entrance doors are etched with the images of the same trees. Within the gardens, the planting is reminiscent of the seaside with an abundance of grassy dune-loving plants.

Entrances, paths and boundaries: Gates and boundaries are functional, attractive and often wooden, making them feel natural and less intrusive. Pathways are simple, either tarmac or decking, with large timbered wooden seating and tables such as you would find at the sea-side.

Site furniture: Within the inner courtyard, the theme of nature continues. There is a wooden boardwalk running along in front of jungle-like planting of large-leaved exotic plants, leading to a beach. In golden concrete there are ripples just like the ripples in sand on a sea-swept shore. Huge rocks provide seating.

Art and water: Impressed into the sand are images of leaves and sea creatures. They are subtle and take some finding. A three dimensional ceramic mural of streams, animals and plants add colour and a rich texture to a wall. One rock has been drilled and piped to provide a safe "wet rock" water feature. It helps to create an intricate fantasy landscape with tiny treasures to be discovered by quiet exploration.

Key achievement

A strong focus on design has created a welcoming facility which is exceptional for a mental health setting in the degree to which it feels safe, and yet also radiates freedom and tranquillity. Of particular note is its ‘non-institutional’ character, with the landscape surrounding the unit inspiring much of its design, and both internal and external spaces reflecting aspects of the natural environment.

What are the health benefits?

Members of staff are convinced that the new unit is helping to speed the recovery of the youngsters, as the children and young people appear to be recovering more quickly than similar patients did in the former building.

Young people spend a great deal of time outside and staff feel that they benefit from the feeling of security and warmth offered by the contrasting private spaces and open woodland. They also enjoy significant psychological benefits from the sense of openness which is a key feature of the building’s design, a feature which is especially beneficial in the context of a secure unit, with the large windows and patios helping to ‘bring the outside in’.

A clinician’s view

‘The young people at Chalkhill were instrumental in the design of the unit, from the decorating with photographs from our previous outdoor space, to the ideas around the planting of the garden. For example, the garden area even incorporates a graffiti wall which allows the young people to express themselves. The design of the unit has aided the recovery of the young people and is also a pleasant place to work in’.

Lessons learnt

  • Involving the patient group (or their representatives) in the design of the facility they will be using can take a great deal of effort on the part of the project team but the benefits can be immense in terms of ensuring that patient needs are comprehensively addressed;
  • If it’s possible for children to drink from water features then they will, even the bubble fountain here: make sure that where it’s likely that water will be drunk, there’s a mains water supply so that the water is drinking quality.


Mark Ellis, Charge Nurse. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.