The hospital, which provides over a fifth of the acute beds in Northern Ireland and treats half a million patients a year, is currently undergoing a £74m refurbishment. This has included an extension to the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, new wards in the main hospital, a new Accident & Emergency department and a new maternity unit.
The hospital is located in West Belfast, approximately 15 minutes walk from the City Centre (Spires Centre, Jury's Hotel, Fitzwilliam Hotel site), on bus routes.
Completed in 1906, it is a landmark in building engineering, laying claim to being the first air conditioned building in the world. Belfast's Sirocco Works factory pioneered the development of air conditioning.
The original hospital was designed in 1899 by architects Henman and Cooper of Birmingham, the culmination of preparations from the mid-1890s to modernise hospital design with special regard to advances in both antiseptic treatment in surgery and the successful application of Plenum ventilation. Notable elements of the design of the original hospital were in the layout and technology.
This was a time in the United Kingdom (then U.K. of G.B. and Ireland, later of G.B. and Northern Ireland) when there was concern in a period of relative social responsibility in having a sufficient hospital treatment facility within or close to city centres when it was recognised there was little available space for expanding existing hospitals or building new institutions.
The design of the Royal Victoria Hospital paid much less attention to the usual requirements of hospital sites, for good access to sun and fresh air. Traditional 'Pavillion' style hospital design was forsaken. Wards were placed compactly side to side, on one level, wall to wall, without intervening opening spaces. There were many long communal wards in which large windows were at the ends of wards, with clerestory windows providing daylight otherwise. It should be noted that balconies, small for the ward sizes, were placed at the end of long wards, and also that there were some outdoor areas for access. Outdoor access had no integral relation to the design of the hospital buildings. As the hospital grew, the exterior area available for patients diminished. Today this amounts nearly fully to roads within the site and parking areas. For clothed and able patients, the very small Dunville Park lies beside the hospital, a park unsheltered from traffic noise.
Close housed city hospital accommodation with little open space was not unique in Europe, nor even in the British Isles at that time, though it was not of the trend of the times and before in the British Isles, notably at a time of social responsibility.
The design of the Royal Victoria Hospital may be important as it reacted against that trend at a time when cities were expanding rapidly. Perhaps this design and similar desings of the time of large growth became a foundational inspiration, or facilitating precedent, for the many city hospitals in the U.K. today which are of a different world to those of the Victorian era where outdoor access was seen as important, sometimes even possibly essential, for recuperation. (Notably, it could not be said there has been any clearly identifiable principle or trend nationally to develop hospitals including good open spaces since that time.) The Royal Free Hospital, Hampstead, London, near a vast open heath, is one example of this type of hospital design from the later part of the last century, where there is no thought whatsoever, nor any provision, as to outdoor access from a huge hospital building.
Fresh air supply in the original R.V.H. was based on the Plenum principle, the real 'first' status of the large public building being that it had humidity control, the function of choice of temperature.
The Royal Victoria Hospital and its subsidiary hospitals became the Royal Group of Hospitals (or The Royal Hospitals). The Royal Hospitals site has developed through the years to occupy one very large area in the city of Belfast to the west of the city, a walkable distance from the city centre. Most of this site is occupied by The Royal Victoria Hospital, (this name is sometimes casually spoken to refer to any department from within the Royal Group of Hospitals, and more frequently, The Royal Hospital, as if one body, is spoken to identify any department within the Royal Hospitals).
Today this site is clearly made of the original historic buildings of designs agreeable to typical designs of the Victorian period, some visible from Grosvenor Road, and also many later, less architecturally distinguished buildings. It has been seen that the original Victorian designs are partly a free adaption of an English Renaissance style. The material of the original buildings is very typical in Belfast, red brick with Portland Stone dressings.
Quite tall, long, simply functionalist middle period Twentieth Century buildings dominate most of the long Falls Road side of the hospital, and give a quite plain character to a section of that busy thoroughfare on one side of the road, west of Grosvenor Road and Springfield Road junction. On this stretch of Falls Road, the mid last century hospital buildings face Saint Paul's R.C. Church, Saint Dominic's Grammar School for Girls and typical, simple historic terraced housing of Belfast, some converted to small shops and cafes. At the end of this stretch, near Broadway, The Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children occupies a much smaller historic building of Victorian design.
Buildings from recent decades and the last few years of typically simple functionalist design are located in the middle of the site and bordering the Westlink, largely invisible the Falls Road and Grosvenor Road. The hospital site stretches along near to Broadway to the west and downhill to border the Westlink city link carriageway at the south where some very recent functionalist structures can be seen.
A slight addition to the main front of the site in West Belfast of very recent years is new railings (Falls Road, going west from the junction of Grosvenor and Springfield Roads). The wavy pattern of the railings signifies as to the structure of D.N.A. There are little yellow Xs and Ys detailed for X- and Y-chromosomes, and portraits (laser-cut in sheet steel) chart the progress of a human life from birth to the age of 100
Frank Pantridge, the "father of emergency medicine", was a cardiac consultant at the hospital for over thirty years. During his time at the Royal, Pantridge developed the portable defibrillator. The portable defibrillator revolutionised emergency medicine, allowing patients to be treated early by paramedics.
During the Northern Ireland Troubles, a common misconception was that the R.V.H. was the best hospital in the world for the treatment of gunshot wounds. Despite this myth, gunshots to the knee, associated with a large number of 'punishment' shootings enabled the surgeons at the R.V.H. to gain renown with their treatment of such injuries.
As some refurbishment has already been completed within this decade, further expansions to the facilites which the hospital can provide are in development with more of further development plans to be begun in the near future.
The exact plans, along with exact details of what refurbishment has been completed in the last few years, can be found at this page of the World Wide Web of futurebelfast.com: