Interiors Awards 2016: Healthcare

Photography by Bruce Damonte

More Photos

Palo Alto Medical Foundation San Carlos Center
Designer: NBBJ
Client: Sutter Health & Palo Alto Medical Foundation
Location: San Carlos, California

“A lot of skill went into making this interior be incredibly beautiful. You don’t usually use the word ‘elegant’ in describing a healthcare setting, but this is elegant. It truly reflects nature’s power to heal.”—Jury

The words “hospital” and “hospitality” have a common etymological ancestor: “hospes,” the Latin word for guest. In their earliest incarnations, hospitals provided lodging for the less fortunate and traveling pilgrims. Today’s healthcare facilities are returning full circle to become more hospitable places. Similar to a resort or spa, the Sutter Health & Palo Alto Medical Foundation (PAMF) San Carlos Center is a new ground-up clinic in the San Francisco Bay area. The 198,000-square-foot facility was designed by NBBJ to emphasize abundant natural light and to foster an atmosphere of wellness.

“We tried to create an environment that felt healing for people,” says Josie Briggs, senior associate/interior designer at NBBJ. “The client wanted a building that spoke to the community and had a connection with the outdoors.”

Located in the town of San Carlos, California, the medical complex is intended to accommodate a rapidly growing population along the San Francisco Peninsula. In this first phase, NBBJ designed a four-story outpatient clinic building, a reception and ambulatory surgery center, and a separate parking garage on the 18-acre site. A hospital is planned for a future phase. The contemporary design is inspired by the area’s California Mission style and its placement of organizing elements around a courtyard to maximize natural light.

NBBJ’s work is particularly impressive given the eight-year time span between design and completion, which included a period during the recession in which the project was put on hold. “It’s always difficult designing large projects to feel timeless and fresh when they are completed years later,” Briggs says.

The building’s design prioritizes transparency, not simply to promote natural lighting but also to aid wayfinding. The garage’s luminous glass stairwell overlooks the adjacent reception building, allowing patients to easily see where they need to go while also encouraging them to bypass the elevator. The spacious lobby feels like that of a luxury ski resort, with walls of cleft-cut sandstone and massive end-block Douglas fir. Here, as well as in the waiting areas for each clinic, high-backed Martin Brattrud Reveal banquettes provide cozy seating options.

To enter the clinic, patients pass through the complex’s signature element, a transparent corridor dubbed “the bridge” by the design team. “We see the bridge as a special place for people to connect with nature,” Briggs says. “The design intent was to have a place where people could stop, rest, and look at the gardens on either side of the bridge and feel inspired.” A 45-foot-long live-edge wood bench— custom fabricated locally from a single native Claro walnut tree—runs the length of the bridge. An aluminum canopy, CNC-turret-punched with a pattern of leaves, creates dappled light. By implementing integrated project delivery, NBBJ was able to collaboratively design the canopy and other architectural elements with the contracting team.

With large expanses of glass on the exterior walls, the clinic waiting areas also receive plentiful daylight. Photographs of the rolling hills and oak woodlands of the region are featured within horizontal niches along the waiting areas’ interior walls. Translucent dividers, printed with botanical illustrations of native plants, serve as pleasing markers of the individual clinic waiting areas.

Behind the scenes, in an arrangement that is still considered unusual within the healthcare industry, physicians and medical assistants work in a primarily open-plan office. By grouping in pods of four, the staff is able to deliver team-based care, an approach that can improve patient outcomes while reducing healthcare costs.

As the project’s medical sponsor, Dr. Ali Shafaie worked to make this a “future-proof facility” and planned ahead for this new way of working. “Physicians and staff have responded very positively,” Dr. Shafaie says. “And they have found that it works well in improving communication among the teams.”

Connecting the main lobby with a waiting area for individual clinics is a glass-walled corridor with a perforated aluminum canopy, cleft-cut sandstone walls that extend from the indoors out, and end-grain wood flooring.