Beth Tenda doesn’t normally allow her three young children to play in dirt, but she made an exception Thursday.

With colorful plastic shovels in hand, the trio enthusiastically moved earth during a groundbreaking ceremony to celebrate the start of construction for a $180 million, seven-story addition to Akron Children’s Hospital.

When it’s complete in two years, the tower will house a new emergency department, outpatient surgery center and 100-bed neonatal intensive-care unit.

Tenda, of Akron, was among the parents invited to help design the 368,735-square-foot facility during a series of sessions last year.

Her family is all too familiar with the hospital and its services. Michael, 6, Jordan, 7, and Angel, 9, all have special medical needs after being born prematurely and spending their first days in the hospital’s NICU. The youngest beat the odds by surviving when he was born 18 weeks premature.

“This is why Children’s is so awesome,” Tenda said, gesturing toward the children she adopted when they were newborns.

Giving parents a voice in the creation of the new hospital facility “will help make a difference for the families,” she said during the groundbreaking event.

For several months during the design phase, Children’s Hospital invited doctors, nurses, other staff and patients’ families to join design workshops inside donated warehouse space in Green. Life-sized walls made from sturdy cardboard provided mock versions of the new facility that staff and families could try and test before architectural drawings were finalized and real walls are constructed.

The unusual design approach should help avoid costly change orders during the construction process, said Donzell S. Taylor, president and chief executive of Welty Building Co. LLC, which is involved in the construction project.

In fact, Taylor said, Welty was so impressed by its experience on the Children’s Hospital project that it is implementing similar strategies to cut costs, improve productivity and create better outcomes.

The resulting design at Children’s Hospital includes an ER on the first floor, which spans nearly two stories; an outpatient surgery center on the third floor and an expanded NICU on the sixth and seventh floors.

The fourth and fifth floors initially will be shelled while the hospital determines the best use for that space.

The addition will be connected to the existing hospital at the third floor.

Child-friendly decor will be visible throughout — everything from a treehouse theme on the top two floors to a puddle theme in the new ER, Children’s Hospital President and Chief Executive William Considine said.

“The new facility will be very family-centered,” he said. “This is going to transform what we do and how we do it.”

Construction already is under way at an adjacent parking garage, which is scheduled to open this fall. It will include six levels for public parking and a basement level for hospital ambulances.

Children’s Hospital is seeking at least $50 million in donations to pay for the projects, according to officials. The rest will be funded through borrowing and hospital reserves.

The hospital also plans to raise $10 million to help Ronald McDonald House expand.

Updates about the construction project, traffic impact and a live construction camera are available at http://building.akronchildrens.org.

Cheryl Powell can be reached at 330-996-3902 or cpowell@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow Powell on Twitter at twitter.com/abjcherylpowell.