Marlon Blackwell Architects' Health Center Project Featured in 'Design for Good' Book

A project by Marlon Blackwell Architects is featured in "Design for Good: A New Era of Architecture for Everyone," published in October by Island Press.
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A project by Marlon Blackwell Architects is featured in "Design for Good: A New Era of Architecture for Everyone," published in October by Island Press.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – A project by Marlon Blackwell Architects is featured in a recently published book, Design for Good: A New Era of Architecture for Everyone. Released by Island Press in October, the book was written by John Cary with an introduction by Melinda Gates. The 280-page volume demonstrates the power of good design to enhance dignity and quality of life for people on the low end of the socio-economic spectrum.

Blackwell, a world-renowned architect, is a Distinguished Professor and the E. Fay Jones Chair in Architecture in the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas. His design firm is based in Fayetteville. The featured project is a 2013 renovation of a former exercise center for WelcomeHealth: Northwest Arkansas' Free Health Center.

The building's design reflects the center's mission of providing quality health and dental services with dignity and respect, regardless of people's ability to pay, said Monika Fischer-Massie, director of WelcomeHealth.

"The thinking behind the design is that the building reflects a feeling of health — through the lighting, the material used, the low-volatile organic compounds, the colors, the use of daylight," she said. "When you walk in the front door, you see light — all the way through to the conference room. You see natural colors, shapely lines. You see beauty. It's a reflection of health."

An open hallway stretches from the front door to the glassed-in conference room, with a vista of trees beyond. There are windows in the exam rooms and dental bays, allowing for natural light. Patient waiting rooms finished in red oak and a covered entry that protects people from the elements convey the sense of welcome at the heart of the center's mission.

"We believe that everything should be architecture — no matter who is being served or what the service is," Blackwell said. "It's an opportunity to enrich people's lives by designing places worthy of folks' respect." 

The building is LEED certified at the silver level — the first health care facility in Northwest Arkansas to attain the designation. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a certification program of the U.S. Green Building Council. The program recognizes buildings that are designed and built using processes that are environmentally responsible, resource efficient and healthy to live in or use.

Blackwell partnered with students in the Fay Jones School to attain the designation. Under the leadership of Tahar Messadi, associate professor of architecture and 21st Century Chair in Sustainability, students gathered and submitted the information needed to have the building LEED certified. This is a detailed and time-consuming project that would have cost the center thousands of dollars, Fischer-Massie said.

Having the students earn the certification was "a win-win," she said. "It saved us money, and it was a great learning experience for the students — not just book learning, but hands-on experience."

Blackwell offered design services at a reduced rate, impressed by the quality of care provided by the staff of professional volunteers. More than 50 doctors, dentists, nurses, therapists and other medical specialists donate their time to serve the uninsured and underinsured with full dental and health care. The center serves about 3,000 people a year.

Blackwell's firm provided the initial design and worked with the contractor and local suppliers to keep costs as low as possible. Some design changes were made to meet the budget, while maintaining the sense of order and proportion that are the hallmarks of good design.

"WelcomeHealth is a good example of what can be done with minimal resources and good design," Blackwell said. Healthcare facilities in general, like schools, tend to be either banal or cartoonish, he said. "Why can't they just be civic?"

Project architects gathered input from staff members, patients and health care providers, gaining perspective on what mattered to them in a health center. One priority was light, accomplished through the use of windows and bright wood. "Natural light is proven to boost productivity and moods," Fischer-Massie said, citing studies done in the design of school buildings. "We're moving away from that old idea that windows distract. Windows and daylight have a positive influence."

The beauty of the building and the respect inherent in the design create a sense of ownership by the people who use it, Fischer-Massie said. In the previous facility, small items such as toilet paper disappeared on a regular basis. The carpet was covered with stains. "Our patients respect the building," she said. "Things don't disappear anymore. If they spill, they clean it up."

The center rebranded itself in 2015, following the same principles that had informed the design. The name change to WelcomeHealth reflects the center's focus on the quality services they provide, rather than the word "free," which tends to embarrass and diminish recipients of care.

"Just because they have less money and education doesn't mean they should be treated as less," Fischer-Massie said. "Their socio-economic status should not decide what kind of health care they receive and where they receive it. Our patients deserve a beautiful building."

That's the ethos echoed in the Design for Good book, which showcases clinics, schools, shelters and community centers from around the world. Featured projects include a maternity waiting village in Malawi; senior housing in Oakland, California; a cholera treatment center in Haiti; and a center for social justice leadership in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

In her introduction to the book, the philanthropist Melinda Gates noted that "good design is a symbol of empathy, optimism and hope."

"Design dignifies," she wrote. "It exists not for itself but for those whom it serves. It honors its users — who they are, where they are coming from, what they want to achieve. It proves that their preferences are important and that their voices have been heard. Great design starts with listening, and the product it produces is an expression of empathy." 


Bettina Lehovec, communications writer
Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design

Michelle Parks, director of communications
Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design


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