With the help of the design community, healthcare institutions today are planning for facilities with greater longevity, efficiency, flexibility, and a better patient and caregiver experience, all while working within greater budgetary and spatial constraints. A formidable proficiency is necessary to address healthcare project complexities and bring humanistic scale and balance to the design process.

As such, professional designers have a compelling opportunity to inspire tomorrow’s design leaders: We can provide exciting learning opportunities for students to work on meaningful projects that have real-world applications, build professional networks, and gain a marketable skill set. 

One example that highlights a college and industry collaboration is an ongoing project involving interior design students from Wentworth Institute of Technology and designers from architecture, planning, and design firm Tsoi/Kobus & Associates (TK&A). This annual partnership, now in its fourth year, provides students the opportunity to work on a healthcare project, tasked with creating a comforting and inviting environment for patients and caregivers.

As a core part of the project, professionals from TK&A impart expertise, sharing their knowledge and offering guidance on a recurring basis. Ultimately, the collaborative goal is to cultivate a passion for healthcare design in future designers and to share that enthusiasm with the community.


The idea
The collaborative project originated with Kate Wendt, IIDA, director of interior design and associate principal at TK&A, based on her experience developing relationships with Boston’s healthcare facilities and supporting academic institutions. After participating in one of Wentworth’s interior design department studio critiques, Wendt recognized that the healthcare sector was severely underrepresented in student work.

This observation resulted in discussions between TK&A and Wentworth about the need for a more concerted effort to educate students in the design of healthcare facilities. A new senior studio project was subsequently launched at Wentworth, in which students focus on programming requirements for a unique children’s hospital. 


The syllabus
Prior to beginning schematic design, professors ask students to research topics essential to timely industry conversations, such as code requirements, safety considerations, infection control, technology, HIPAA requirements, evidence-based and Lean design, universal design and patient-centered care, and more. After thoroughly planning the layout of a typical patient floor and public amenities on the ground floor, students next turn their focus to the design and layout of a typical patient room.

They’re encouraged to select two additional programmatic aspects of their choice, developing those spaces in greater detail and integrating them into the overall branding and theme. Students also tour Children’s Hospital Boston to better understand how design intent can be practically applied to real-world functionality and experience in a healthcare space.

After completing their preliminary research, the class visits TK&A’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, office, where staffers orient students to the project and help them navigate through all aspects of the hypothetical children’s hospital program.

TK&A’s design of the new inpatient tower at University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital (completed in April 2011) serves as the basis of design for the studio, but the facility is not identified to the students to encourage their own interpretation and themed design.

A site plan, building core and shell plans, elevations, and sections are provided, and students are also given a comprehensive program from which to work, inclusive of net and gross square footage allocations per each specialized hospital department and space, right down to the soiled linen staging and crash cart alcoves.

Two preliminary design reviews allow students to present their basic concepts and receive feedback from their professors and TK&A’s staff, concluding in a third and final presentation to guest critics representing numerous Boston-area design firms and healthcare facilities.


Not your average student co-op
Formal and informal relationships between industry and higher education have always existed through opportunities like cooperative education placements, internships, and collaboration on student competitions. This particular learning paradigm has yielded students a greater awareness of the competing needs and stringent requirements that often accompany the design of healthcare facilities.

It provides an early glimpse into the competitive market of healthcare projects, a factor that drives the high level of design ingenuity and talent that healthcare architecture firms seek to recruit each year.

Students develop a reasonable grasp of the many issues specific to hospital design, as well as an ability to come up with strong concepts and then apply them cohesively to spaces that are functionally very different. TK&A brings the outside world in with staff acting alternately as client, contractor, engineer, and the facilities crew, exposing students to the many facets of designing a complex healthcare facility. 

Wentworth student Annemarie Gasperini is this year’s winner of the IIDA Providence City Center Student Award for her submission of the children’s hospital project. It was recognized as “exactly the type of presentation one would expect to see professionally.”


Challenges and rewards: Sharing the experience
In recent years healthcare design has undergone some rapid changes as the result of new local and federal policies, market demand, and, of course, technology. Competition for patients has driven hospitals to demand better and smarter healthcare facilities from architects and interior designers. Outstanding hospital designs emerge each year, gaining industry notice for innovation and positive impact on the community.

However, healthcare facilities don’t have the same cachet for students as a restaurant, night club, or hotel may have, so breaking the stereotypes associated with hospitals and achieving excellence in design is a challenge. The hospital program is complex and unfamiliar, and the learning curve is steep. Sometimes students are overwhelmed by the functional and technical aspects of a solution and miss the inspirational elements.

The goal of this project is for students to achieve both.

It’s very rewarding to observe students as they become absorbed in the challenge, to see their commitment to the solution. But involvement in these types of programs comes with its own challenges.

Participating in design critiques is a significant commitment of time and energy, with reviews typically lasting four or five hours and often amidst professional project deadlines. At the same time, though, critiquing student work may push professionals to better articulate their design process and principles, with mentoring potentially proving to enhance their own design skills.

In the end, professionals and students together create, if only on paper, a better place for young patients. If through this studio work a lifelong interest in healthcare design was cultivated in future designers, then the goal was achieved.


Chu Foxlin, AIA, IIDA, LEED AP, is an Associate with Tsoi Kobus & Associates. For more information, please visit www.tka-architects.com. Herb Fremin, AIA, is a professor of Wentworth Institute of
Technology  and can be reached at freminh@wit.edu.