Healthy Hospital

By Mary Grauerholz

Inova Heath System is on the forefront of greening the nation’s hospitals.

When Seema Wadhwa became the assistant vice president of Sustainability and Wellness at Inova Health System, Inova’s management team clearly had sustainability on its roadmap, leadership just didn’t know the best way to get the organization to the destination. At a time when the healthcare industry was beginning to dip its toes into sustainability, Wadhwa, a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)–accredited professional, embraced the challenge.

Seema Wadhwa is assistant vice president of Sustainability and Wellness at Inova Health System.

“Inova wanted to move toward sustainability, but didn’t know what it looked like,” Wadhwa recalls. Today, Inova shows how greening a healthcare setting can reap success. The health network serves more than 2 million people in northern Virginia and the Washington, D.C., metro area with five hospitals and numerous other facilities, including the area’s only Level 1 trauma center and Level IV neonatal intensive care unit. Inova hospitals hold 18 Joint Commission accreditations and Gold Seals of Approval. Last summer, U.S. News & World Report named Inova Children’s Hospital one of the best in the country. Inova Women’s Hospital, in the same complex as the children’s hospital, is home to the country’s fifth-most highly sought-after obstetrics program.

Much of Inova’s success has been deep green, with several of its facilities achieving LEED certification. The medical/surgical tower of the Inova Fairfax Medical Campus in Falls Church, Virginia, built in 2012 and LEED Silver certified, was Inova’s first building project designed and constructed to LEED standards. Last winter, the Inova Women’s Hospital and Inova Children’s Hospital, a 12-story complex also in Falls Church, also achieved LEED Silver.

Left: A meditative rooftop healing garden provides a relaxing space for patients and their families to connect with nature. Right: One of the challenges in creating a new, shared, 12-story building was to accommodate the distinct identities of these two institutions while providing a cohesively designed, operationally efficient facility.

Sustainability is so thoroughly woven throughout the Inova system that Wadhwa believes the word “healthcare” does not fully describe the nonprofit institution’s mission. “It’s more about providing health than ‘healthcare,’” she says. “Today it’s more about keeping people healthy rather than addressing their illnesses. We’re looking upstream to keep people healthier. That ties very well to sustainability and wellness.”

Not so long ago, sustainability was a side issue in healthcare. Over the past decade, Wadhwa has seen an about-face in the field. “There has been a cultural shift in the way we look at the environment,” she says. “Historically our focus was on the impact that we humans were having on the environment, such as cutting down trees, polluting our water system, and degraded the air quality. The changing focus is on the impact of the environment on human health, from chemicals in our environment and volatile organic compounds in our carpets, to air pollution and water-quality issues such as those in Flint, Michigan.”


A dedicated entrance, distinguished by playful design elements, establishes a unique identity for the Inova Children’s Hospital.

Canadian-born Wadhwa trained as a civil engineer and early on established a career in transportation, land development, and neighborhood design. Her sister began working in sustainability, and soon Wadhwa was drawn to its culture and philosophy. “It was an opportunity to use my skills, to find more of a parallel with my training, my personal values, and my education,” she says.

Since then, the constant in Wadhwa’s work life has been developing and instituting green practices. After her move to Inova, she became the director of the Healthier Hospitals Initiative (HHI), an initiative sponsored by 12 leading health systems and three nonprofits, including Practice Greenhealth. HHI grew to include 1,300 hospitals using their collective power to grow sustainability in healthcare. She also serves on the board of the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) National Capital Region. Wadhwa and Knox Singleton, Inova’s CEO, coauthored with Carrie R. Rich, Sustainability for Healthcare Management: A Leadership Imperative, which outlines how sustainability promotes health and wellness.

Besides her work leading the creation and implementation of green practices, Wadhwa also manages the Inova Wellness Program, which helps the institution’s 16,000 employees reach optimum health. Again, she notes that the two fields create a beautiful union. “When you look to engage employees, wellness and sustainability are two elements,” she says. “Staff really enjoy working in a healthy workspace.” The Inova staff, as well as patients and visitors, have access to healthful, sustainably grown food prepared in the company’s cafeteria. Employees are also offered cooking classes that focus on healthy eating.

Inova’s three LEED-certified buildings promote patient experiences. “When you have an ill population, you want to give them the best healing environment possible,” Wadhwa says. “That includes one that is sustainable to support a healthy community.” In the Inova Women’s Hospital & Inova Children’s Hospital complex, for instance, a green roof with a gazebo is accessible from the high-risk pregnancy floor and has become a place that patients enjoy visiting.

The LEED Silver medical/surgical tower, which opened four years ago, was the first phase in a capital improvement project on the Inova Fairfax Medical Campus. Designed by healthcare architects Wilmot Sanz, Inc., and RMF Engineering, and constructed by Turner Construction Company, the complex consciously connects patients to the natural world. A 4,000 sq-ft green roof above the lobby attracts birds and insects while providing a serene view for patients. Low or no volatile organic compounds improve air quality. Materials such as millwork are sourced from nearby manufacturers who support environmental sustainability. A white reflective roof lowers energy costs and reduces heat island effect.

The emphasis is on natural beauty and people’s natural inclination to be close to nature. “It’s not necessarily the environmental features that are being called out; it’s the whole feel of the design,” Wadhwa says. Native plantings outside resist drought and provide a natural habitat; plants in the interior help cleanse the air and provide a pleasant focus. A 600-gallon cistern collects rainwater to sprinkle over the green roof. An impressive 80 percent of the project’s construction waste was diverted from landfills.

As sustainability in the healthcare industry grows, Wadhwa sees Inova on the forefront of the green movement. She credits the success of the movement to forward-thinking leadership. “We’re on a journey with other health systems and organizations like Practice Greenhealth to change the role of health in the environment,” Wadhwa says. “The healthcare industry has an opportunity to lead by example.”