David Allison, FAIA, ACHA

Professor of Architecture and the Director of Graduate Studies in Architecture + Health, Clemson University

As the leader of the healthcare architecture program at Clemson, David Allison has demonstrated ongoing leadership with his students while managing what is arguably the most comprehensive professional degree program concentrating on architecture and health. The program focuses on integrating design, scholarship, and research in healthcare environments, and has won many national awards, as have the students themselves. He has also taken a national leadership role among all of the universities that specialize in healthcare architecture, with the aim of providing a complete picture of healthcare design education in the United States.

A registered architect in three states, Allison was a founding member of the American College of Healthcare Architects and the Coalition for Health Environments Research, and is a member of the Leadership Council of the AIA Academy of Architecture for Health. Allison is training tomorrow’s healthcare architects and researchers today and, as such, his influence will be seen for generations to come.

Todd Hutlock: How has the education of the healthcare designer evolved since you have started your career?

David Allison, FAIA, ACHA: Several things come to mind. The first evolution is the impact of the computer and the expanded ability to visualize and place us inside proposals at the conceptual stage of design. This is certainly an advantage, especially in the field of healthcare design where we are very concerned with the patient, family and staff experience and character of these settings. The challenge is to not be entirely seduced or deceived by the imagery, and look beyond the imagery at other design considerations, as well.

At the same time the computer tends to alter both the design process for many students and how we as faculty interact and work with them. The work resides in the box (the computer) for the most part, and unlike when we could see the whole body of process work in layers of drawings and models on the desk in the past, today it is like looking at the work through a periscope. You often only get to see what the computer screen frames. It requires a more deliberate search and engagement (and collaboration process in team projects) during the design and review process.

Finally, the role of research and the challenge of translating design research into sound design action have fundamentally altered how we should and can approach the design process. There is a significantly expanded body of and access to an ever-growing base of knowledge, best practices, bench marking, research and evidence that can guide healthcare design. We now require every graduate architecture student take a built environment research design and methods course their first semester.

Hutlock: Given that you have an active hand in educating tomorrow’s healthcare designers, what would your advice be to a new graduate looking to break into the field?

Allison: My first recommendation, of course, would be to seek out a formal graduate or post-graduate education on health and the built environment, such as the Architecture + Health program at Clemson University, or one of the other established programs in architecture or interior design. Learning by doing in professional practice provides valuable knowledge and experience, which is essential for a well-rounded professional education. However, my feeling is that this should be complimented by a more formal education, and the introduction of a broader and more conceptual framework for the critical issues in healthcare design that are not always easily or consistently understood through working on specific projects in practice.

I see the first job after graduation as critical post-graduate education. I encourage my graduates to seek out a learning and mentoring firm. I would also encourage seeking a position with firms that embrace a highly collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to design that engages a wide range of design professionals and end users or occupant constituencies.

Hutlock: How do you anticipate your role as an educator changing as the healthcare design industry changes over the next few years in the wake of healthcare reform?

Allison: As with all aspects of the healthcare industry and healthcare design, the challenge will increasingly be on how to do more, better, faster, with fewer resources. We are inevitably working in an era of constrained resources. My challenge to students is to simplify and overlap. By that I mean that any given design concept or decision should cover more ground, address more issues, and provide greater value across multiple measures. We must be educating future design professional on how to provide well designed healthy and patient/family/staff centered environments that require less space, lower costs, consume fewer resources and have a minimal carbon footprint.

Hutlock: Obviously you influence and inspire many people in the healthcare design field. Who influences and inspires you in your work?

Allison: Well, that is a hard question to answer, as there are so many people who influence and inspire me. I would hate to overlook any of them by naming a few. I look first to the generation of design professionals before me who mentored me in practice and the Academy of Architecture for Health. These were people who pioneered the application of design research, patient centered design, therapeutic environments, and building for change. Many fellow educators, architects and designers who work outside the field of healthcare design also influence my work. I think we have a lot to learn in healthcare design from the best work outside of our domain.

Finally, I am inspired by my students who bring new insights from their fresh perspectives and work, and challenge me. The great joy of being an educator is that I get to be a perpetual student along with them.