The Prince is due to outline his full agenda at a conference today, but he has fired an opening shot in last week's Mail on Sunday. He took that opportunity to criticise "factories for the sick" that look like "dreary concrete and glass office blocks", and called on architects to recognise the curative power of design.
Invited into the role by health secretary Alan Milburn, the Prince will spearhead a set of design initiatives intended to answer the criticism heaped on recent, high-profile, PFI schemes.
And as design tsar, Charles will have power over architects and contractors. The Department of Health has put two advisory boards and a centre of design excellence in place to assist him in his role, and six exemplary projects are planned.
The obvious concern among architects is that the Prince will use his position to stamp his neoclassical preferences on more than 50 upcoming projects. One architect says: "I think he's an inappropriate choice. He has always been one step behind contemporary architecture and I am concerned about his input."
Others are endorsing the appointment. Jon Rouse, chief executive of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, says: "We expect [the Prince] to champion design in the widest perspective and to enthuse leaders. His role is evangelical and about getting on the road to raise awareness about what patients need."
From the point of view of the health service itself, it does not really matter whether hospitals look like Buckingham Palace or the Pompidou Centre.
The point is to have good design, meaning the kind that assists effective treatment and promotes patients' sense of well-being. And if this is to be achieved, it has to be soon. A quarter of Britain's hospitals are to be rebuilt in the next 10 years; if they are substandard, then the NHS will be, too. As Peter Wearmouth, chief executive of NHS Estates, says: "We have to get this right and so we have to start the debate right now."
Wearmouth rejects the idea that Charles' appointment is a gimmick. He believes that his design philosophy matches the patient-driven commitments set out in the NHS plan.
"Prince Charles may cause a disturbance with his views on architecture and alternative medicine, but he champions people. Health is a messy business: you have to deal with death, blood, joy and sorrow. The buildings have to be good for people and he can help promote that."
Charles may cause a disturbance with his views on architecture and alternative medicine, but he champions people
Peter Wearmouth, NHS Estates
Two advisory boards will be the key to keeping the Prince in check: the first will represent patients and doctors and will overlap with the second, a group of design and construction professionals chaired by Richard Burton, a director of architect Ahrends Burton and Koralek. A range of architectural and construction experts are being wooed to join.
Wearmouth describes this board as "the engine in the car" and rattles off a list of issues that it will address. For example, he hopes to gather advice on how to treat NHS patients as consumers with the right to expect and demand a high level of care, rather than sheep to be herded through a process.
Wearmouth wants a review of whether there should be increased standardisation in healthcare design. "At the moment, all our hospitals are bespoke and that costs money," he says. "Not all hospitals should look the same, but we should standardise what we can, especially operating rooms and wards. Only 20% needs to be about the local specifics and individual design flair."
So is this a move toward off-the-peg-designs that can be rolled out factory-style? Wearmouth responds: "What's wrong with that?"
Wearmouth also wants to hear more about the reorganisation of hospital facilities. He suggests that these could be broken up into pods across a larger site, rather than remaining in a single building. Accommodation would be set in a kind of hospital-hotel, somewhere cosy and homely in which people could rest and recover; equipment would be located in a separate building, making the replacement of worn-out technology or buildings easier and less disruptive.
The push for better design extends to two other initiatives: the setting up of a centre of design excellence to harvest ideas and information, and the five model PFI schemes that NHS Estates has launched with CABE. These developments will prioritise design from the outset, avoiding the perceived risk with privately financed projects that the architect is steam-rollered by the profit-conscious consortium.
On top of this, a comprehensive review of healthcare architecture is to be carried out next summer and a document called Achieving Excellence in Health and Design will be published. These will help establish best practice and are intended to build on a Design Development Protocol for PFI schemes, released six months ago, which set out some ground rules for PFI design.
There will be a push to increase public involvement in hospital schemes on a local level. Computer-aided design will be the key to this. "It means we can show our ideas and give people an idea of what we're offering," says Wearmouth. "We want to have open days where we give local people the chance to have their say."
NHS Estates is keen to get the best value for money out of the private sector by establishing partnering programmes and appointing framework contractors and consultants. But with the rebuild programme demanding both quality and quantity from the firms involved, it remains to be seen whether construction can rise to the challenge – and with Milburn investigating hospital building in Spain last week, British firms should remain alert. "There are a lot of big European firms that could move in," says Wearmouth.