2019 Rising Star: Stephen Parker, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, architect and planner, SmithGroup (Washington, D.C.)

After seeking out his first apprenticeship at age 15, Stephen Parker has since gained broad experience at firms large and small, focusing on sectors from higher education to healthcare. Since joining SmithGroup in 2014, he’s built a portfolio ranging from federal healthcare to international projects at multiple scales. A believer in the architect as advocate, Parker’s initiative to lead through service has been recognized with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Young Architects Award. He’s also the youngest licensed architect to be elected to the AIA’s Strategic Council.

Healthcare Design: What drew you to a career in healthcare design?
Parker: A confluence of events led me to focus on healthcare design. When I considered my thesis in graduate school, it was the anniversary of my grandfather’s death. His career in the Army spanned three wars, causing several health issues. My frequent hospital visits in his final days colored my experience of healthcare. At about the same time, several of my friends had to undergo intense hospital stays after returning from serving abroad. All of these experiences ignited my drive to design something better. I chose to research and design a Wounded Warrior Polytrauma Center and have been blessed to work on several veterans healthcare projects since.

What’s one recent project that you’re most proud of?
This year, I had the chance to work with a nonprofit design agency in India. Alongside a dozen local and international professionals, we drafted a master plan for a new 150-bed hospital and nursing college in a rural region. We also developed the first phase of concept design and worked closely with hospital leadership to design several innovations in the ward layout, minimize infection risk in the surgical wing, and plan for the next 25 years of growth. All of the volunteers had a shared purpose of serving this community through design. It’s the type of rewarding work that feeds the soul, and I hope to have more opportunities like it in the future.

What do you think is the number one issue facing the healthcare design industry in 2019?
The challenges of recruiting, training, and retaining talented professionals to sustain a career are becoming increasingly difficult. The onboarding process from school to practice leaves many wanting, and this is amplified by the inherent complexity of healthcare design. While making this practice-specific knowledge accessible, it’s also important to mentor, sponsor, and provide opportunities for growth within the studio and beyond to equip the profession’s next generation of leaders.

What’s one idea you have for overcoming that problem?
I’ve advocated, within the AIA and other organizations, for an avenue of professional growth through community design opportunities. Within the firm, I’ve served as design captain for our yearly community project here in D.C. Nationally, I’ve volunteered with the nonprofit AEC Cares to execute a pro bono project during the national AIA Conference on Architecture. I’m always amazed by the drive and sense of purpose of everyone involved. Some years ago, a few colleagues and I embarked on turning the community design ethos of the profession into legislation, crafting and introducing it to Congress. By founding the AIA’s first advocacy coalition for the National Design Services Act, we sought to create avenues for aspiring architects to serve their communities through design while also combating student debt. By seeking out and collaborating with communities that are underserved by the profession, we can provide opportunities for younger staff to develop the design, project management, and leadership skills that are critical to their career. This has the added benefit of raising the profile of participants’ firms and the role of design in community building. This is especially important in healthcare, where the need is great among underserved communities and we should strive to design a healthy society for all.