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November 2006
Business - by - Design
By Susanne Deitzel

The ethos of business-by-design is upon us. The staid and proven course of left-brain, administrative-driven processes are giving way to a new brand of thinking. Words like “iterative,” and “abductive reasoning,” are replacing yesterday’s yarn of “thinking outside the box.”

And interestingly, nowhere is this better illustrated than in the conference room of RPA Design, an architecture firm that for all practical purposes looks its part, but delivers something considerably more.

Tucked into 112 South Tryon Street in a building declaring its historical relevance with a gold embellished alcove perched over the sidewalk, RPA Design occupies the uppermost floors with CAD tables, design palettes, blueprints, sketches and a glass-paned conference room.

But where the large marble table and polished suits around it would normally confer an air of formality and academic gravitas, RPA Design’s smiling principals, David Ramseur and Rick Peterson work against the grain of expectations. Convivial and welcoming, both men do not need to speak long to demonstrate that the design of the firm itself is as unique as the work it produces.


A Strong Foundation

Ramseur and Peterson met while working in a large architectural firm, which specialized in designing health care facilities. They worked together for ten years before determining to create an architectural firm that satisfied their similar interests and shared business philosophy.

Among these was the desire, as Peterson explains, “not just to create buildings, but to create projects for people. Both David and I had a strong core of experience in health care and senior living projects, and the desire to use our profession to serve people. Along the way, we have developed a business that we think satisfies those two caveats.”

In 1997, the pair began to fashion unique collaborations on many different fronts, and this method has become a hallmark of their practice. Using what they call ‘Scenario Planning,’ Ramseur and Peterson have formulated a highly interactive design model using the input and insight of their clients, consultants and their design team.

In this instance, ‘interactive’ has refreshingly little, if anything, to do with touch screens, styluses, or fancy computer interfaces. The interactivity is the simple communication between talented, solution-oriented designers, and the resources they use to determine the best answer for everyone involved.

The procedure involves a bottom-up, rather than top-down approach. For example, if a health care facility is being created or expanded, RPA will bring its team, led by Ramseur and Peterson, for an intensive three-day scenario-planning workshop. Every party with a stake in the building’s design is encouraged to attend, from hospital board members, to physicians, nurses, and administrators. RPA presents background on the proposed facility based upon its experience with comparables and then conducts exhaustive Q&As, generates needs and wants lists, and develops pros and cons of each scenario. Assets of each circumstance are considered, and when possible, married, to generate schematics for the final design.

While this is happening, either Ramseur or Peterson is leading the discussion, providing suggestions and tempering divergent views, while the other is sketching various scenarios so that the stakeholders can see the result of their ideas in real time. The illustrations are posted for feedback and organized into a charette, which is in architect-speak, ‘a process of  visual brainstorming.’

This mode d’emploi has many vital distinctions and benefits, according to Ramseur. “By generating the schematics from the information gleaned in the planning sessions, you can be proactive and immediately incorporate your client’s needs into the design. This also gives the stakeholders ownership in the design, rather than just having a blueprint set down in front of them.”

It also appears to separate ego and strong opinions from the basic facts. “Inevitably you are going to have different points of view, but when you can discuss all the options and have a tangible representation of those ideas to review within a short period of time, there is no disputing what is in front of you. The design you are discussing becomes a lot more concrete, while the conversation becomes more fluid. The end result of this is consensus,” explains Peterson.


Design Elements

RPA’s conference room is wallpapered with these Scenario Planning illustrations, and again, there is little evidence of an AutoCAD in sight. These drawings are old-school marker sketches with drafting script details, and the effect is calming, if not downright nostalgic.

Explains Rick Peterson, “We try not to overuse computer generated designs when communicating with our clients because they give the impression of rigidity. With the softer lines and warmth of a sketch, the idea appears easier to interpret and revise.”

But, despite the use of these techniques, RPA Design is not ‘retro.’ Their process is a complex amalgam of years of experience paired with cutting edge analytical data, design techniques and the ever-evolving sociological, operational and financial implications of health care and senior living environments.

This is where the design comes out of the ivory tower and into the moat. Another exacting differentiation between RPA and other firms is the lengths to which they are willing to go swim with the alligators.

Explains Peterson, “Sometimes you feel as though you know almost as much about some facets of the health care environment as the people that are going to be working in it. By working in this area for so many years, and through skillful collaborations, we get the information and expertise to create well-informed, efficient and useful spaces.”

Ramseur and Peterson credit their many affiliations with other firms and health care consultants as powerful resources. “Cogdell Spencer Advisors, Inc. provides valuable insight into the capital and financial climate of health care, and we are pleased to be their preferred architect. As well, Lantz Boggio Architects (LBA), based out of Denver, Colorado and led by Dennis Boggio is a pioneer in the design for senior living spaces, and brings a lot of insight to the process. We are fortunate to have several relationships with firms whose work we value highly,” comments Ramseur.

Peterson says much the same of their in-house team. “Everyone in the organization is highly integrated to assure the best use of our talent. When everyone has the ability to work as a team, ideas get even sharper. For example, our Director of Interior Design, Jennifer Tuttle, came to us and explained that interior design shouldn’t be limited to finishes and decorations. She presented us with a powerful case that interior design should be part of the complete architectural design, and she sold us. Now many of our people are fluent in both languages as a result.”

This will probably pay off in more ways than one, because RPA is about to get pretty busy. With more than 70 million baby boomers coming down the pipeline, hospitals and senior living facilities are bracing for the inevitable surge of humanity. Says Peterson, “Not only are there a lot of people that are living longer, and more people needing care, but these folks are also part of a consumer culture that is used to having higher expectations. You can already see   this in today’s hospitals. Gone are the green tiled corridors; now we have skylights and atriums and healing environments.”

This extends to senior living as well. Ramseur’s nine years of experience on the Board of North Carolina Lutheran Services for the Aging has given him deep appreciation for the situation that many aging Americans are experiencing. “The only option the aged used to have were nursing homes, which was terrifying. They were like warehouses for the elderly. Today we have better options.”

He continues, “Our partner, Dennis Boggio, spearheaded the assisted living movement and we have learned a lot from his experience. Together we are working to find even better alternatives to fulfill the needs of those with modest, or nonexistent income. There are high-priced options out there for those who can afford it. But not everyone can pay tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in entry fees and thousands of dollars a month on top of that. We are here to provide solutions, in terms of both tangible building design, and suggesting some of the more intangible mechanisms to finance them.”

Comments Peterson, “We believe in building beautiful buildings, and we enjoy building award-winning structures. But while many firms stress the aesthetics of their enterprise, our philosophy is understanding our client’s business and providing solutions to make their job easier, and more productive.”


Good Composition

Ramseur and Peterson offer, by example, Carolinas Health Care System’s Huntersville Oaks. “CHS abandoned old nursing home models and initiated a community neighborhood model with common living and dining spaces and courtyards, as well as a town center where residents can get their hair done, shop at the country store or go for a walk. It is a new paradigm where seniors can regain variety and freedom of choice,” says Ramseur.

The Alamance Regional Medical Center (ARMC) in Mebane, North Carolina is another example of designing for the future. Mebane is a small town located close to Burlington, N.C. anticipating its own state of the art medical facility rather than having to travel to larger cities for care. The ground floor of the facility will be an urgent care unit and diagnostic center owned by ARMC, and an adjacent ambulatory surgery unit owned by an LLC of physicians. Its top floor will be medical office space, to accommodate resident physicians and specialists. In addition to its original plan, the space to locate the facility has been arranged on a piece of property that will allow for plenty of expansion. RPA Design is working directly for Cogdell Spencer Advisors who Alamance Regional Medical Center chose as the healthcare facility developer.

A current project hitting extremely close to RPA’s uptown home is the expansion of CMC-Mercy Hospital. The firm is engaged in transforming the existing facility to include more outpatient facilities, medical offices and parking decks. It is in an expansion like this that the scenario planning process again proves invaluable. “We started doing Scenario Planning for Mercy three years ago, not just to get the proper design, but to create plans that would keep the hospital operational and attractive in the process. Now we are close to breaking ground, and expect to have everything complete by 2008,” says Peterson.

But Peterson says that it is not just the big projects that get the principals blood pumping. “Most of the clients that we have started with one small project and eventually grew into long term relationships. That is what we are looking for at the end of the day.”

He adds, “As a firm, we can be as big or as small as we need to be, on a project by project basis. That is another great advantage of our collaborative relationships.”

It could be this kind of agility that sustains RPA for the long term. In the rapidly accelerating and wildly unpredictable field of health care as well as the evolving terrain of senior living facilities, form must follow function in lightning quick succession. And the results matter.

The substance demanded by their clients will be dictated by a mass of 70 million people, and the chorus of those voices will continue to determine the style for RPA Design.
Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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