SCUP
Blog Post

What If the Building We Work in Could Make Us Healthier?

Published September 5, 2023
By Lisa Jasinski, PhD, University of Texas at San Antonio
Planning Types: Campus Planning

Institutions referenced in this resource:
Stanford University

During the recent 2023 Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) 2023 Annual Conference in Cleveland, Niraj Dangoria, Stanford University’s associate dean of facilities planning, and management, and Paul Woolford and Julia Cooper of HOK, reported how they used integrated planning to construct the Center for Academic Medicine for the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Their presentation, “Stanford Center for Academic Medicine: Addressing Burnout in the Workplace,” described the unique challenges, opportunities, and solutions for a 210,000-square-foot facility that opened during the height of the pandemic.

Figure 1 The Center for Academic Medicine, Stanford University School of Medicine; image courtesy of https://www.hok.com/projects/view/stanford-university-school-of-medicine%E2%80%AFcenter-for-academic-medicine/

At the outset, the design team set a bold goal: “One must feel better when they leave than when they arrive.” It strikes me that all campus buildings might adopt such a worthy aim.

For this project, alleviating employee burnout was an especially urgent goal. The building’s primary users (clinical practitioners and medical school faculty) typically work long, demanding hours. They regularly arrive on campus before 7 a.m. and work 12-hour days performing varied tasks in the hospital, their offices, and across campus.

Knowing that more than half of physicians in America (63 percent) report feeling burned out at least once a week, according to the American Medical Association, the design team approached the project as an opportunity to address the multifaceted needs of users holistically and sustainably.

The building’s lobby hosts a concierge capable of providing many services, including laundry pickup, on-site tech support, a gym space, and a café that serves “really good coffee.” The Center for Academic Medicine adopts a human-centered approach to placemaking, providing inviting spaces and amenities that encourage the building’s residents and the public to come, linger, work, and recharge.

Sustainability and a Connection with Nature

Few college campuses are as beautiful as Stanford’s or blessed with a climate as inviting and temperate as Palo Alto’s. Architects took full advantage of the site, a former parking lot, that abuts an arboretum predating the university’s founding, recalling when the land was the leafy estate of railroad baron Leland Stanford.

The building was scaled to mirror the layers of the nearby forest, positioned to reduce glare, and made extensive use of overhangs to maximize shaded outdoor patios. The central courtyard harnesses cool breezes and is designed according to the position of the sun throughout the day. Interior fixtures and furnishes adopt biophilic principles and make abundant use of natural and reclaimed materials.

According to HOK, the building’s annual energy use intensity—15.9 kBtu/sf/yr (including renewables)—represents an 85 percent energy savings from baseline.

Figure 2 The building’s design features a café, amenities, and outdoor spaces that appeal to its residents and the public; image courtesy of https://www.hok.com/projects/view/stanford-university-school-of-medicine%E2%80%AFcenter-for-academic-medicine/

Modularity and Evolution

The building’s interior was designed using a modular grid that allows the space to be easily adapted according to shifting needs. The walls of private offices can be expanded so the areas become meeting spaces, and meeting rooms are just as easily adapted into private or shared workspaces. Private offices intentionally occupy a small square footage, placed adjacent to larger, sun-filled collaboration and meeting spaces. The casual lobby café can be converted into a private dining room to host elegant functions. Such principles ensure that as the needs of users evolve and change—during a single day or across multiple years—the building can be modified accordingly.

A Few Implications for Practice

1. Growing the Importance of Employee Wellness
Research by Gallup suggests that 8 of every 10 employees will experience burnout during their careers. The most recent Workplace Insights study found that younger employees—Gen Z and millennials—place an even greater premium on wellness than past generations. These implications are staggering. Universities, hospitals, and corporations that fail to address the underlying workplace culture and conditions that cause burnout face declines in productivity, difficulty in attracting and keeping talent, and higher rates of employee illness (including physical and mental health).

The news is not all bad, however. Many small changes seem to stave off burnout, from increasing employee recognition, more permissive policies enabling remote and hybrid work, and setting realistic expectations about workload.

2. Nudging Employees Toward Greater Health
In their bestseller, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Yale University Press 2008), authors Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein describe ways that policies and the built environment can work together to enable people to make better, healthier, and more sustainable decisions (everything from increasing retirement savings to choosing less junky snacks).

Many elements of the Center for Academic Medicine—from its shaded outdoor walkways that encourage walking and discourage driving to an on-site gym—make healthy options the default. More campus designers and policymakers might take note of how design can reduce subtle and unconscious barriers that deter healthy behaviors (e.g., prioritizing staircases over elevators, using recycling bins and water bottle filling stations, choosing low-carbon meatless meals in the dining hall). When accumulated, little tweaks amount to significant change.

Figure 3 Outdoor walkways nudge users to walk between spaces and recharge in nature; image courtesy of https://www.hok.com/projects/view/stanford-university-school-of-medicine%E2%80%AFcenter-for-academic-medicine/

3. Going Further to Address Employee Burnout
While the Center for Academic Medicine represents the pinnacle of aesthetic and sustainable design, the conference presentation prompted me to wonder how design principles might address the many social and systemic factors that contribute to burnout in the first place. A well-designed building does little to address the long hours, staffing shortages, and bureaucratic paperwork often described by over-taxed medical professionals.

To be clear, the building sets an inspiring standard for how the built environment might nourish, energize, support, and care for its residents. But I think the design prompts leaders to be more proactive about making care a primary ethic, through employee-first policies, right-sizing job demands to available staffing capacity, more pronouncedly emphasizing work-life balance, and harnessing new innovations in technologies (e.g., AI) to make work just a little better for all of us.

Author Bio

Lisa Jasinski, PhD is senior director of strategic initiatives, Office of the President, University of Texas at San Antonio. As a 2023–2024 SCUP Fellow, Jasinski is currently conducting a research project, “The Future of University Planning in 2040: Using Foresight Analysis to Help SCUP Look Ahead, Adapt, and Innovate.”