A founding principal of WHR Architects, Inc. in Houston, David Watkins, FAIA, has been a leading advocate for evidence-based design as demonstrated in his firm's projects such as The Methodist Hospital Outpatient Center in Houston. Watkins is the co-author, with former WHR principal D. Kirk Hamilton, FAIA, of Evidence-Based Design for Multiple Building Types (Wiley, 2009).
Do you have a particular approach to a dialogue with a client in a project's early stages to understand what they want in the project?
Most projects occur within the context of something else: a campus, a department, a business plan. Understanding that context is critical to better understanding the role of the project. We like to get a feel for the client's overall vision, strategy, priorities, and measures of success. I frequently tell our younger designers to "listen" for what the client isn't saying, try to read between the lines, and ask probing questions to draw them out. For laypersons not accustomed to discussing built environments, it can be challenging. We need to recognize that when we engage in early dialogue with our clients.
Given the economy and changes with healthcare reform, what is the biggest challenge for healthcare architects and designers today?
Uncertainty seems to be the common denominator for most of our healthcare clients these days. Despite the best of intentions, healthcare reform has created uncertainty in how the new business model is supposed to work. When you add to the equation the economic downturn, increasing cost of medical technology, aging populations, and a shortage of physicians and nurses, these variables can dramatically impact healthcare providers' bottom lines. It simply isn't possible to predict the financial and regulatory environment that far into the future. So we encourage our clients to incorporate as much flexibility and adaptability as possible, and to approach larger projects more incrementally.
What are the next steps for evidence-based design in the next five to 10 years?
What I hope to see in the next few years is the emergence of an infrastructure for better generation and sharing of data, as well as a financial framework that makes firm-based research more economically viable. It is encouraging to see how quickly evidence-based design has been "mainstreamed" by many healthcare design firms. The unfortunate reality is that most firms are referencing the same data and generating very few new high-quality studies. There is nothing wrong with referencing the same data, but the shelf life of those studies is limited. What I hope to see is a more robust research environment based on partnerships between practitioners, the academy, and the healthcare industry.
What advice would you give to design students or those starting out in the field?
I have become increasingly attracted to young professionals who I refer to as hybrid professionals—people who have more diverse, multidisciplinary backgrounds. An understanding of design is still important but someone like our director of research, whose experience includes careers in respiratory therapy, interior design, and design research, is the kind of hybrid professional who can offer a combination of skill sets that give them a broad and more credible perspective on our industry. I would encourage our next generation to find ways to build those "hybrid" credentials and capabilities.
What would be your dream project?
The physician/educator/researcher is our "dream client" because they are mission-oriented, inherently curious, risk-takers, and creative. A "dream project" involves more than just a dream client, however, and we have been fortunate to have a few of those. The kinds of projects that fit into the dream project category require not only great clients and a talented team of designers, but also smart builders and a process that empowers everyone on the team to operate at their maximum potential.
What interior space—anywhere in the world, designed by anyone—inspires you?
There are quite a number of spaces around the world that inspire me but the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth by Louis Kahn is a building that never fails to both inspire and impress me with its timelessness. The scale of those interior galleries, flow of spaces, quality of light, and appropriateness of the design to its intended function goes beyond inspiration. Its understated reference to what architecture is capable of achieving—without resorting to stylistic tricks, convoluted geometry, or trendy materiality—is timeless. In my view, it's as though everything he learned in his career was distilled into that one elegant solution.