With the hospital construction business booming in the Lowcountry, researchers are asking: Are we building hospitals the right way?

Much of health care is based on scientific evidence. "You do things that are proven in the literature to be effective," said Jerry Reves, dean of the Medical University of South Carolina's College of Medicine.

Drugs and procedures are studied in numerous trials before approval. But when it comes to building the facilities where that care is delivered, Reves said there are few studies that reveal the best designs. The Center of Economic Excellence in Health Facilities Design and Testing is a collaboration aiming to change that.

Clemson University and MUSC came together to study health design, along with Spartanburg Regional Health System and Health Sciences South Carolina.

South Carolina's Education Lottery will provide $5 million in funding, which must be matched with money or gifts-in-kind by the center's partners. The center will comprise two endowed chairs, one at each university, and two design and testing facilities, one in Charleston and one in Spartanburg.

The state Legislature established the Centers of Economic Excellence program, also known as the Endowed Chairs program, in 2002, which allows the state's three public research institutions — Clemson, MUSC and the University of South Carolina — to use lottery funds to create research centers that will help the state's economy.

David J. Allison, Clemson architecture professor and director of the program, said research in health and design is still young. Clemson's architecture school offers one of a few programs in the nation in health and design, but rooting that study in laboratory testing is a new endeavor, he said.

A patient-room prototype already has been constructed with the help of Spartanburg Regional Health System, Allison said. There, researchers simulate the experience of patients and hospital staff in various room designs.

One feature under scrutiny is the head wall, where gases are stored and cords are hooked to the building. "That array of technology is intimidating and stress-inducing," Allison said. "We can design those high-technology areas better."

Allison foresees the two laboratories operating as observatories. Just as astronomers travel to sites to test their hypotheses, so will architects and designers use the health-design labs to try out their prototypes.

In Charleston, medical equipment manufacturer Berchtold Corp., the U.S. operation of a company based in Germany, has expressed an interest in supporting the center. Berchtold President Ric Rumble said he welcomes the collaboration among the universities. The company already has constructed an operating room training facility for MUSC students.

Reves sees the design center as serving a practical role as MUSC moves forward in its 20-year expansion that will eventually replace the teaching hospital. The expansion's first phase, the Ashley River Tower, is expected to start treating patients with cardiovascular and digestive diseases in early 2008.

Other hospitals planned in the region include East Cooper Regional Medical Center's replacement facility, and Roper St. Francis' new East Cooper hospital, both expected to go into service within the decade.

The research results that come out of the health-design laboratories could potentially influence hospital architecture nationwide, Reves said.

While MUSC will have one of the endowed chairs, the Charleston-based research will primarily benefit students in Clemson's interdisciplinary doctorate program in environmental design with a focus in health and the built environment. The University of South Carolina is expected to join the center in the future with two more chairs.