When NBBJ (Seattle) was hired to design the Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center (CAIHC) in Fairbanks, Alaska, the firm was already familiar with creating healthcare facilities for Alaskan natives, having previously conducted an 18-month cultural study that informed the planning and design of a hospital and three clinics in the Anchorage region.

But that knowledge took the project only so far—the CAIHC had to specifically meet the needs of the Athabascan people of the Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC), which is made up of 42 villages along two rivers in an expansive 235,000-square-mile region of the Alaskan Interior. Right from the start, the client made one design goal very clear: “They wanted a building that shouts the Athabascan culture,” says Chuck Kolb, project manager, NBBJ (Seattle).

So the design team, consisting of NBBJ in collaboration with Bettisworth North (Fairbanks, Alaska) and associate architects Jones and Jones Architects (Seattle) and Martha Hanlon Architects (Fairbanks, Alaska), went to where patients live, visiting two remote villages that can be accessed only by boat or plane to talk with village chiefs, tour the community, and visit schools. They came away with a list of priorities for both healthcare needs and the patient experience. Next, the team established a cultural advisory committee of community elders and tribe members who helped planners and architects shape the primary and specialty care facility.

The result is what’s been dubbed a “super clinic” that mirrors the residents of the villages it serves—from its interior colors inspired by the region’s seasonal color changes to the local artwork on its walls to its curvilinear forms that mimic the area’s winding rivers. The achievement helped win the team a Citation of Merit award in this year’s Healthcare Design Architectural and Interior Design Showcase. (For more on the four Citation of Merit winners and Healthcare Design's entire Showcase supplement, see the September 2013 issue.)

Jurors were quick to recognize the commitment the design team took to develop a cultural literacy they say is often challenging and skipped over on projects. Others applauded the patient-centeredness of the building and its ability to appropriately serve this specific community while answering the client’s goal of establishing an integrated model of care.

“In this instance, community is quite different than what most of us might think about. I think of community as a group of people in proximity to one another and who share a common cultural direction. In this case, they are a very close-knit culture, but they are not in close proximity,” says Dale Alberda, lead designer, NBBJ.

So when families travel to the CAIHC for care, it’s a treat to meet other members of the tribe whom they may not see otherwise. It was important that the facility provide a large gathering space, as well as areas that are broken up into smaller, more private zones. “What’s key in the design is that it’s scaled appropriately. The building itself is sometimes bigger than the square footage built in a whole village,” Kolb says.

Additionally, Alberda notes that the distance traveled from villages alone had “a profound impact on the project.” With likely hundreds of miles to traverse to visit the CAIHC, the design team needed to be sure the facility was accommodating. “You’re not going to decide one day to go and get your teeth cleaned,” Alberda says. “You’re going to plan ahead and most likely bring the entire family at once to do that.” That means plenty of waiting spaces, food options, as well as spaces for storage of luggage or even a place where mail could be sent back home.

With the TCC’s shift to an integrated care model that moves away from treating illness to instead promote wellness and empower patients to take an active role in their health, all of these design approaches served a greater purpose. “The patients coming to this building, they feel they have ownership of this building and the space is theirs,” says Samantha Chen, lead interior designer, NBBJ. “Our goal was to create this design where they feel comfortable and they feel proud of it.”

For more on the 2013 Healthcare Design Architectural and Interior Design Showcase Citation of Merit winners and other Showcase coverage, see: