From left: Eric Perchiazzi, Jared Batiste, Donald Black, Meeranali Muntyajali Saiyad and Hossein Mirzajani won the challenge for their design concept “Everyone is Family.”

Image courtesy of the American Society for Health Care Engineering

The rapid pace of change in health care combined with an aging workforce have made preparing the next generation of health care planning, design and construction professionals even more paramount today. In recent years, university programs geared toward designing and building health care facilities have been cropping up across the country, and for the past seven years the annual International Summit & Exhibition on Planning, Design & Construction (PDC Summit) has created a space for these students to put their classroom lessons to work in a mock design competition called the PDC Planning & Design Student Challenge.

Chaired by Eugene Damaso, AIA, ACHA, NCARB, GGP, EDAC, director of design at RLF Architects, the challenge (which was canceled the past two years as the PDC Summit went virtual) brings together 25 students from five different schools and disciplines for a 48-hour collaborative design charette.

“I volunteer for the PDC Student Challenge helping to put it together once a year, and the planning for it is quite the feat,” Damaso says. “We are not only soliciting architecture students, but we’re soliciting engineering students and construction administration students and nursing students. It takes a village to put on this challenge.”

This year’s competitors gathered for the summit in New Orleans in March. Four students each hailed from the University of Kansas School of Architecture and Design, Kent State University College of Architecture & Environmental Design, Penn State College of Engineering, the Texas A&M University Department of Construction Science and Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center (LSUHSC) School of Nursing.

The overall challenge is to plan and budget a health care facility complete with design and architectural requirements, a clinic and wellness staffing plan, engineered systems and infrastructure, and a construction plan and budget. However, as the PDC Summit travels to different locations each year, the challenge is tweaked to fit the nuances of each host city.

The project goals of this year’s challenge took on a New Orleans flavor with the help of local architectural firm Sizeler Thompson Brown Architects (STBA). The firm built the challenge around the concept of modern health care requiring multiple solutions and flexibility for ever-changing times, epitomized in one of the historic “melting pot” cities of the United States and the world: New Orleans.

With a 7 a.m. wake-up call, the students were taken to a site in the warehouse district of New Orleans, a subsection of the downtown area. Over the years, the district has transitioned from an area of abandoned warehouses and old sailor hotels into one impacted by gentrification and tourism while also remaining an area for people experiencing homelessness.

Kent Spreckelmeyer, FAIA Emeritus, professor of architecture at the University of Kansas served as one of the mentors for the challenge.

“The students picked up on those kind of competing needs — the increasing tourism, increasing gentrification, and also increasing populations in need who have not only been traditionally present but have now been exacerbated by the pandemic. They were able to pick up on those kinds of issues in their designs and did very well,” Spreckelmeyer says.

The students were given a set of basic requirements — a primary clinic with 20 exam rooms, urgent care clinic with 12 exam rooms, an academic support center, etc. — and a mix of optional elements to include, such as outpatient rehab and therapy spaces, a dialysis clinic and telehealth.

“This is a unique challenge, especially for a lot of us coming out of state,” says Sarah Halstead, an architectural engineering student at Penn State. “I’ve never worked on a site like New Orleans where the ground is soft. It’s a completely different structural design challenge with needing to change how the foundation is formed. And trying to integrate all of those groups into one space where everyone feels comfortable and welcomed.

“On top of that, the space that we were in is an old warehouse district, so we have a lot of the old worn-down buildings architecturally,” she continues. “We [also] are near the French Quarter, so we have an Italian and Spanish architectural influence. Combining those into something that fits the historical portion of the site but that is also unique and modern on the interior with advanced care is very unique.”

Picking up on specifics like these is integral to the competition, Damaso says, and so is collaboration among the teams. In fact, Damaso says that each year, many of the students suggest sending the design challenge requirements prior to students arriving on site to allow for more research time. However, Damaso says that would take away from the open collaboration the challenge seeks to foster.

“I think there’s a delicate balance because when you can think about something or you’ve researched something, you come into the group with that knowledge and people will almost guard themselves around an idea and maybe not be as open to listening to someone else’s thoughts about certain things,” he explains. “We want to strike a balance of keeping everybody at a level playing field. You come in knowing what you know, and you’ve learned what you’ve learned in your university programs. But when you come to the PDC Summit you bring all of that knowledge to the table, and information is being exchanged. It’s about asking questions and problem-solving together.”

As knowledge is being exchanged, many students say that the challenge has opened their eyes to new opportunities in health care design and construction. For instance, Jared Batiste, a student at LSUHC’s nurse practitioner program, says that he was able to teach his teammates about the clinical needs of a health care facility while also learning about the thought processes behind design. He was part of the challenge’s winning team dubbed the Po’ Boys, named after New Orleans’ famous food.

“My group welcomed and insisted that I give my input,” he says. “They had an understanding of how crucial the nursing or health care professional viewpoint is to this project, and seeing how much of an asset that is to the architecture definitely opened my eyes. They came to me for pointers, suggestions or answers, and I could tell them ‘Hey, this should go there. Or this really wouldn’t flow that well if we designed it like this.’”

The Po’ Boys built their design around the theme “Everyone is Family.” The team’s main focus was to provide services to low-income or socioeconomically disadvantaged families. The design was outfitted not only with family and primary care space, but also dialysis units and a wellness program employing social workers and case managers all in one area. The open design has built-in opportunities for privacy, creating a space that was both welcoming and inclusive, but also respectful.

Batiste says he walked away with a wider perspective on nurses’ role in health care design.

“This is definitely something I want to be involved in, and something I would like to learn how to do,” Batiste says. “I didn’t know they had programs and schools specifically for this field, so I’m learning more about that now. Now that I’ve been introduced, it definitely has piqued my interest, and I’m looking to be more involved in it in the future as a consultant.”

Damaso says eye-opening moments such as these are a rewarding part of his career and this challenge. Planning for the 2023 challenge is already underway, as is the summit’s call for abstracts. The challenge’s volunteers hope to continue gaining more interest with future students, volunteers and sponsors to keep the competition going for many years to come.