Monday, January 9, 2012

A Case Study – Part 1: Introduction

Community Living Center Expansion, VA Roseburg Medical Center (Schematic Design image by Robertson/Sherwood/Architects)

Wikipedia defines a case study as an intensive analysis of an individual unit (e.g., a person, group, or event) stressing developmental factors in relation to context. Wikipedia further describes a case study as a means to explore causation in order to find underlying principles. Dissecting the process by which an architectural design problem is outlined and its resultant solution identified provides a classic case study subject.  

I am currently involved with a project that presents an ideal occasion for such a case study. The client is the Department of Veterans Affairs. The assignment is to design a new home for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients at the VA Roseburg (Oregon) Medical Center. My intent is to illuminate how Robertson/Sherwood/Architects (RSA) and our team of collaborators are trying to create a work of architecture. 

The primary reason I decided to present a case study of this project (for which design remains in progress) is that it so clearly offers an opportunity to inhere meaning in built form. I’ll explain this in greater detail throughout the series of posts I plan to write about the project and its design process. The focus of this first essay is to outline how rich this opportunity is.  

Nearly all design problems today are burdened with considerations so complex and constraints so severe that our ability to consciously apply principled intentions toward them is diminished or precluded altogether. Too often the results are merely competent (or sometimes less than competent) solutions to measurable concerns. We and our clients are pleased when we get the basics right: the project comes in on budget; the building achieves its performance goals; the users are happy with how their new spaces function; and so on. However, most of us will acknowledge that transcendent architecture is expected to do much more.

Because of our necessary focus on all that is measurable, we sometimes lose sight of the poetry in what Louis Kahn defined as the unmeasurable. He believed the human condition requires a balance between the two, between knowledge and intuition, between the temporal and the eternal. According to Kahn, acknowledging the presence of the unmeasurable is a necessary step toward creating architecture that helps us understand the world in which we live.

For my part, I have described good architecture as life-affirming and springing from optimism. Good architecture also aspires to be lasting and significant, serve as an interpreter of our existence, and act as a medium for narrating and representing space.

We recognized the potential of the new VA Roseburg Alzheimer’s and dementia patient facility as soon as we became aware of the project. Here was a prospective commission with a long-time client, for a program with well-defined needs, and for which the science of care was rapidly evolving. Also, the project fell neatly into a sweet spot for RSA: not so small that it would be difficult to fully explore themes of interest to us, nor so large that we would have to team up with a larger firm and concede some design control. We pursued the job aggressively and the VA rewarded us with the design contract.

Our firm has worked on projects for the VA Roseburg Healthcare System since the mid-1980s; I’ve had the good fortune to be our firm’s primary contact with the VA for much of that time. Invariably, everyone at the VA I’ve worked with has been genuinely appreciative of what we bring to the table as design professionals. The VA’s contracting officers, staff engineers, and project managers contend with an enormous bureaucracy and its attendant foibles, but they do so effectively and with good humor. They provide us with welcome support and encouragement, if not always the most generous budgets. They understand their own limitations. The bottom line is the folks at the VA Roseburg Healthcare System are a pleasure to work with and a client most every architect would covet.

Setting for the CLC Expansion (my photo)

The VA christened the future new home for its Alzheimer’s and dementia patients as the “Community Living Center (CLC) Expansion” because it will augment the existing Transitional Care Unit and form a residential care precinct on the Roseburg Medical Center campus. As I will discuss in a subsequent post in this series, the VA charged us with identifying the most suitable site for the project. The spot we ultimately selected is packed with promise, a fact we did not fully grasp until after we were well underway with developing our scheme.

Another aspect of this design problem that makes it so noteworthy is the VA’s goal of truly creating a home for those who served their country and now require compassionate care in return. Our duty as architects is to provide these men (and a growing number of female veterans in the future) with as supportive, respectful, non-institutional, and rich a setting as possible in which to live their remaining days. We regard this duty as an honor and do not take it lightly.

The VA also directed our team to design the CLC Expansion project to comply with the federal Sustainable Design and Energy Reduction Manual for New Construction and use LEED’s Healthcare Rating System as a guideline for documentation and compliance. The reasons include long-term operational savings for the VA, a healthier work and patient environment, and a desire to contribute toward the reduction of greenhouse gases generated by the manufacture and transport of construction products. We’re pleased the VA embraces sustainability as an ethos and endorses LEED certification for the project.

All in all, the CLC Expansion presents a synergistic convergence of factors—a “Goldilocks” commission, perfect for RSA; a supportive client; a serendipitous site; a worthy cause; and a mandate for sustainability—which together form the kind of design challenge architects dream of. It’s a project for which we hope to create genuinely meaningful architecture. We’re embracing this opportunity by applying as much care and intellect as possible.

VA Roseburg Medical Center

Hopefully, no one will read this case study series and think of me as overly boastful or bigheaded. I’m simply proud of the project and our approach to it. If anything, our solution will appear thoroughly unassuming because that happens to be the appropriate response to this design problem.

Future posts in this series will each address a specific aspect of the project, beginning with its functional brief, and progressing to site selection, conceptual design, sustainability, and so forth. While the initial entries are a record of what has already passed (we’re presently in the Construction Documents phase), subsequent posts will occur in “real time” as the project moves forward.

Upon its completion, this case study will serve as a chronicle of our design process for the VA Roseburg CLC Expansion project. If I’m skillful enough, it will offer a glimpse into how we think as architects and at the same time tell a compelling story. The design process is still unfolding and chapters remain to be written before we know if the tale will have a happy ending. I hope readers enjoy the case study series of posts and regularly visit SW Oregon Architect to find out.

Next in the Case Study series: Cultural Transformation.

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