Jessica Welch’s college path was anything but clear. Having grown up in a family of doctors, she thought she’d follow them into the medical field. But when she started her studies, she didn’t enjoy the classes as much as she thought she would. She decided to change course and pursue a love for art instead by earning a degree in fine arts with a minor in architecture. For her next step, she wanted to “make a difference”—and considered joining organizations such as Teach for America and the Peace Corps before she started looking into graduate schools.

Her search eventually led her to Clemson University, where she says she finally found her fit in its Master in Architecture and Health program. “It was the perfect combination of my background in science and art as well as my knowledge of medicine,” she says.

David Allison has been a professor at Clemson University for 25 years and says he’s seeing more students, both domestic and international, drawn to healthcare design. “More architecture students are beginning to understand that healthcare architecture is more than solving technically and functionally complex problems,” he says. “Our students understand and have access to a growing body of evidence on which to base their design decisions and actions.”

Creating curriculum
Students today also have a growing number of program options across the country, including Clemson, Texas A&M University, and The University of Kansas. A few years ago, Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, began offering a graduate certificate in health facilities design and a post-professional Master of Health Care Design, offered jointly through its colleges of architecture and environmental design.

Maggie Calkins, Elliot Professor of Health Care Design at Kent State, says the programs are only offered online, which makes them accessible and flexible for traditional students as well as people working full time. “We have a number of mid-career architects [enrolled], both from the U.S. and abroad,” she says.

Whether classroom- or Internet-based, today’s schools are challenged with adapting to the ever-changing needs of the healthcare sector and designing their programs to arm students with the right tools to be successful. One of the biggest changes in the last decade, says Frank Zilm, Chester Dean Lecturer on Healthcare Design at The University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan., is a growing recognition in architecture education that students need specialized knowledge to practice in an increasingly complex, multidisciplinary, and technically challenging environment.

“The combination of addressing functional needs, safety, aesthetics, and patient support requires unique skills,” he says.

To meet those needs, he says professors at Kansas use technology and Web conferencing to allow top researchers and practitioners from across the country to share their findings with students. The school also emphasizes traditional design studios with practical real-world experience by requiring students pursuing a certificate in the healthcare program to have a seven-month paid internship at a healthcare architecture firm before their final semester.

“This mix of experiences makes the final design studio very rich and focused,” Zilm says. “I believe the internship model is one of the reasons our healthcare program has the largest enrollment of all of the architecture options at our school.”

These academic programs are also adapting their coursework to provide more exposure to international and interdisciplinary projects for their students through such resources as international exchange programs or project assignments with missionary initiatives in Africa, Haiti, and other countries.

“Understanding culturally diverse social and practice models across the globe will be an increasing demand for young professionals,” Zilm says.

Kit of parts
Professors say no healthcare design program today is complete without instruction in the latest research methods and evidence-based design (EBD). At Kansas, students have the option to prepare for and take The Center for Health Design’s Evidence-based Design Accreditation and Certification (EDAC) exam, with seven students choosing to do so last spring.

George Mann, The Ronald L. Skaggs Endowed Professor of Health Facilities Design at the College of Architecture at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, incorporates Lean and EBD into the classroom by having students tackle current design challenges. For example, in 2014, Texas A&M students designed solutions for a rapidly deployable, sustainable, modular isolation unit for Ebola and other communicable diseases—some of which were shared with some members of Congress. “We teach by designing actual projects for actual clients,” Mann says.

Nicholas Watkins, a principal and director of research, and Alice Gittler, designer researcher, at BBH Design (Raleigh, N.C.) teach an “Introduction to Healthcare Design Research” course at New York School of Interior Design in New York City. For a project in partnership with Gouverneur Health in Lower Manhattan, students took part in a three-day observational study in two primary clinics using a tablet-based design research app.

“By familiarizing them with these kinds of technology and methods now, we’re positioning them to be highly competitive in the job market,” Gittler says.

Allison says that with this increasing body of knowledge and tools, it’s critical that students also learn how to choose the best resources and methods available. So at Clemson, a research methods course is required in the first semester for all Master of Architecture students, and the school also offers a “Topics Course on Health Policy, Planning, and Administration,” which includes a segment on Lean.

“They must be able to distinguish the signal from the noise within all the information that’s available at their fingertips,” he says.

Running start
Students are finding experience and career guidance outside the classroom, as well, as design firms play an active role in mentoring the next generation. During her studies at Texas A&M, Renee LaCroix had a summer internship at WHR Architects in Houston. She returned after graduating with a Master of Architecture degree and certificate in health systems and design to serve a one-year Tradewell Fellowship at the firm—an experience that helped solidify her career path in medical planning.

“Having worked for a year really intensely on medical planning, I was able to find a real appreciation for it,” she says. Her time at the firm included attending client meetings, participating on team projects, and being exposed to educational opportunities that she wouldn’t have had otherwise.

“There’s so much to learn about healthcare design; it’s so detailed and there are so many factors in the design,” she says. “Sometimes it’s good to be young and green like that because you have more ideas, but it can also be a challenge because you need your design skills to work in the long run.”

Clemson’s Allison says the most successful students are the ones who prepare themselves for a lifetime of learning. “Think of your first job after graduation as the first step in your post-graduate education,” he says. “Seek positions where you can receive good mentoring, be given good opportunities, and learn how to do good work.”

Anne DiNardo is senior editor of Healthcare Design. She can be reached at


Sidebar: Words to design by

Today’s architecture
and design students need more than the right degree—they also need a broad set of skills and sound career advice. Here, university professors and designers share some words of wisdom that not only are helpful to those waiting to enter the field, but also serve as a reminder to those already working in the industry of what it takes to make a difference.

“Travel the world extensively now so you can begin to understand it later.”—George J. Mann, Texas A&M University

“One element of success is balancing experience with taking reasonable risks. This is one way you continue to be challenged, grow, and find work rewarding. Sometimes the risks may lead to failure, but there are frequently valuable lessons learned.”—Frank Zilm, The University of Kansas

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions—particularly good, probing questions.”—Maggie Calkins, Kent State University

“I don’t think healthcare design is for everybody. Hospitals tend to be very large and complicated and their schedules tend to be much faster than some other building types. I would encourage people to go out and work in healthcare design or do an internship to see if it’s something you really want to do.”—Stephanie Schwindel, WHR Architects

“Learn how to do literature reviews. Students need to start learning that research is more than a Google search.”—Nicholas Watkins, BBH Design