2019 Rising Star: Emily McGowan, Assoc. AIA, LEED GA, medical planner, HOK (Washington, D.C.)

After she earned bachelor’s degrees in architecture and visual communications from Ball State University, Emily McGowan’s interest in healthcare design brought her to Washington, D.C., where she expanded her experience at SmithGroup. She next pursued a Master’s of Architecture + Health degree from Clemson University. In 2016, she was awarded a fellowship with Global Health Corps, a leadership development organization focused on health equity, and worked at MASS Design Group developing prototype hospitals and infrastructure standards with the Ministry of Health in Kigali, Rwanda. She continues to support her passion for global health equity in the built environment through her work at HOK.

Healthcare Design: What drew you to a career in healthcare design?
McGowan: Designers make consequential decisions about which resources are leveraged and who is empowered within the design process. From the materials we source to the system components and technology we specify, the values that drive our agency also hold us accountable to the impact created, which continues far beyond a built product and into the lives and communities of the people it serves. Understanding that our role as architects extends beyond traditional practice and viewing it as an opportunity to advocate for social change is what drives me to choose this profession every day.

What’s one recent project that you’re most proud of?
While at HOK, I’ve had the privilege of working on the design of UPMC’s Vision and Rehabilitation Institute in Pittsburgh. The 410,000-square-foot facility is currently under construction and will serve some of the region’s most vulnerable patient populations needing physical rehabilitation and those with visual impairment or eye disease. My role on the team as a medical planner involved meeting with various user groups to translate their complex needs into a building that thoughtfully addresses the patient experience at all scales. One of the highlights in my career is working on the project with consultant Chris Downey, who lost his sight as a practicing architect 10 years ago. He continues to design and advocate for environments that are navigable for people within all spectrums of physical and visual ability. The most valuable lesson UPMC taught me was to actually “unlearn” a lot of preconceptions I had about the design process and accessibility within the built environment. Inclusive design is the outcome of collaborating with the right representation as well as understanding that even the smallest detail can have a profound impact on creating a holistic and healthy solution for everyone.

What do you think is the number one issue facing the healthcare design industry in 2019?
I believe now more than ever we are seeing disruptive technological innovation, fractured political frameworks, and environmental acceleration completely change the way healthcare is experienced worldwide. We also are witnessing the rapid forces of globalization and retailing of healthcare impact how services are delivered and to whom. As the competing demands for personalized care and collective agency in healthcare grows within a shrinking world, gaps continue to widen. This carries profound implications on equity and the way we craft our future healthcare delivery environments.

What’s one idea you have for overcoming that problem?
As architects, we need to look beyond our built products and critically examine our role as designers, builders, collaborators, and educators through a lens of empathy and advocacy. While our profession can’t solve all the problems outlined head-on, recognizing our designs and the industries and institutions constructing them as accountable and critical improvement levers can greatly improve outcomes and lead to innovative, effective, and replicable solutions. We can continue to advance our own approach by designing for flexibility and allowing the built environment to adapt to a rapidly changing world. By leveraging technology and appropriating solutions rooted in place-making reconciliation, healthcare designers can better serve to mitigate these competing factors and close gaps.