From left: Graduate students Nathaniel Neely and Stuti Garg give the winning presentation at the PDC Summit Student Challenge.

Image courtesy of the American Society for Health Care Engineering

Twenty graduate students came together in Phoenix at the International Summit & Exhibition on Health Facility Planning, Design & Construction (PDC Summit) to lend their solutions to one of the most pressing issues facing America’s No. 1 trusted profession: nurse burnout. 

The students were selected from five different schools and disciplines to create four multidisciplinary teams and compete in a 48-hour design charrette. The mission was to create a mock design with programming, architectural, engineering and construction plans for a nurse wellness center. The challenge envisioned the center as a safe haven for clinicians that destigmatizes mental health treatment and focuses on overall well-being, with the goal to reduce clinical staff burnout. 

Eugene Damaso, AIA, ACHA, NCARB, GGP, EDAC, associate and director of design at RLF, who serves as chair of the PDC Summit Student Challenge, partnered with Banner Health system, which provided the students access to tour one of its existing shell spaces that would serve as the basis of their designs. 

“This charrette challenged the students to put themselves in the shoes of a nurse and be empathetic to their experiences but with a different perspective,” Damaso says. “Normally a health care project will be designing something like a clinic, where you are thinking about the nurse in a very different way. This challenge was more personal.” 

It was even more personal to Amanda Stone, a graduate student at Montana State University’s Mark and Robyn Jones College of Nursing, who competed. 

“I have worked with other interdisciplinary teams where I am able to give ideas to a hypothetical health care project, but to actually be able to create something specific to nurses and share that with engineers and architects was very exciting,” she says. 

Two of the teams gravitated toward Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to help guide the designs of their nurse wellness centers. Madison Lesmeister, a graduate student pursuing a master’s of architecture at Texas A&M University, says that the framework provided a common goal. 

“We had to design empathetically and critically think about what the users are experiencing,” she says. “Currently, nurses are experiencing burnout and fatigue and are not wanting to return to the workforce. As a team, we asked ourselves, ‘How can we generate an environment conducive to healing that provides privacy for the nurses, lets them be vulnerable and allows them space for counseling or one-on-one therapy sessions?’ With our design concept aimed toward incentivizing growth and one’s ability to thrive, we used a tree as a symbolic representation, which became a central node within the facility that all the other program elements circulated.”

Vincent Della Donna, AIA, ACHA, principal at HDR, is a past president of the AIA/Academy of Architecture for Health and one of the founders of the PDC Summit Student Challenge. He served as one of the jurors for the competition and says that taking the owner and user voice into account when planning health care facilities is key to producing an effective design, which is why the challenge began incorporating nursing graduate students on each team in recent years. He also says that mixing students from different schools and disciplines provides a real taste of what students can expect in their future careers. 

“In listening to some of the students, many of them had done competitions similar to this before, but it was within their own school and with peers in that school,” Della Donna says. “With this challenge, we mix up the students to create teams, and so everyone starts off at a level playing field. They had to learn to work with each other, so it’s really giving them some real-life experience.” 

Stuti Garg, a graduate student studying construction science management at Clemson University, was part of the challenge’s winning team. She says the opportunity to work with strangers provided her with valuable perspective as she continues her studies. 

This year’s participating schools were Texas A&M University School of Architecture; Texas Tech University Huckabee College of Architecture; Penn State College of Architectural Engineering; Clemson University Nieri Department of Construction, Development and Planning; and the Mark and Robyn Jones College of Nursing at Montana State University. 

“When we started working on the brief, it was so interesting to understand the perspective from each of the fields, like nursing, engineering and architecture,” Garg says. “We were each looking at the brief from such different angles, and we quickly saw how important it is to assess the strengths of each team member. You really have to put your brains together for this challenge.”