The opening of Essentia Health’s new 930,000-square-foot St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth, Minn., would add the tallest building in the city. With a directive from Essentia Health to ensure the new facility felt a part of the city and inviting to the community, the project team was tasked with figuring out how to scale down such a massive building.

“The challenge was how do you design this building to convey a sense of modern, cutting-edge healthcare but also at the same time make it feel like part of its cultural and historical context?” says Saul Jabbawy, regional director of design at EwingCole.

Turning to the city’s mix of Victorian and post-industrial architecture and colorful masonry, the building base is designed with deeply articulated and striated brick panels and recessed glass that recall the urban scale and texture of Duluth’s masonry tradition. The upper levels and patient tower feature a glass façade, inspired by the surface of the nearby Lake Superior.

Design strategies to minimize bird collisions

Recognizing that glass buildings can create a risk for bird collisions—a particular concern in Duluth, which is located on one of the largest migratory bird paths in the U.S.—the project team incorporated a wave-like frit pattern inside the glass panels, which allows birds to see the building.

“Fog comes out of the lake every day around 10 a.m. and we thought it would be wonderful to create a pattern that’s reminiscent of the fog and helps to soften the building,” Jabbawy says.

Utilizing wind studies

Another big consideration in the façade design was the impact of wind and ice build-up related to the area’s severe weather patterns, says Oscar Gomes, principal at EwingCole.

Once the general geometry and massing of the building was established, the project team put a model of the design through a wind tunnel study.

When the test results showed that areas of the building would be subject to intense wind gusts, the project team modified the design to achieve a more aerodynamic form, including softening some of the building corners, leading to the building’s pill-like shape.

“We designed the shape of the tower to minimize wind drift both in the front of the tower and over the roof garden,” Jabbawy says.

Anne DiNardo is editor-in-chief of Healthcare Design. She can be reached at

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