A vision for medical education

An institutional client endorses the value of the design process

Danny Mahaffey, AIA, Director of Facility Planning at Louisiana State University (LSU), remembers the moment he held up a set of keys, closed his eyes, and thought about a design for LSU’s Medical Education Building. The keys were a part of an icebreaker exercise that took place during a highly choreographed visioning session hosted at VOA’s Chicago office on behalf of VOA + BBA Design Partnership, LLC and attended by thought leaders in medical education from around the country.

“Each person selected a talisman at this meeting and talking about these talismans opened up discussion on the project itself. The charrette also represented a great form of positive pressure on our team to meet with the client and understand everything that they wanted from the project,” recounts Mahaffey.

It’s fair to say this wasn’t business as usual for LSU. Typically, when it comes to designing and building new facilities, LSU, as a state entity, must subscribe to state-mandated processes. Usually LSU goes through a back-n-forth with Louisiana’s Office of Facility Planning and Control. Quantitative concerns such as program, schedule and budget take the front seat in this by-the-book, somewhat linear approach.


The design for LSU’s Medical Education and Innovation Center however, was funded through a grant to LSU’s partner on the project, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge. The public-private model allowed for a design-centered process.

In working with VOA’s core team (Gayle Soberg, Rebel Roberts, Lauren Andrysiak and Brenda M. Bush Moline) and Baton Rouge firm Bradley-Brewster & Associates team (Lynn Bradley, AIA ACHA, Brett Bouillion, AIA, Erin Asa, and Angela Keller) under a partnership model; the VOA+BBA Design Partnership LLC, LSU was able to bring a design-centered process to bear on this new 4-story, 35,000 square foot graduate medical education facility.

“From the beginning of a vision-focused design process, this collaboration was responsible for creating a place that is not only true to its roots in Louisiana, Baton Rouge and LSU but one that breaks new ground in the way that architecture responds to and embraces pedagogy,” says Percy “Rebel” Roberts III, AIA, RIBA, NCARB, FACHA , VOA Design Principal for the project.


“It was a different process and it worked,” says Mahaffey. “During the visioning I was saying ‘This shouldn’t just be a building, it should be our campus,” and therefore we added significant portions to the project. That came from the visioning process, when we asked ourselves “What do you want this to be?” “We started with parameters including timeframe, budget, but the program and building came to life out of that vision session,” says VOA’s Brenda M. Bush Moline, AIA, EDAC, LEED AP BD+C., Principal of VOA’s healthcare practice.

Post-visioning, VOA + BBA focused on developing an understanding of traditions and legacies that defined medical education in Louisiana and advanced them further.

A “narrative medicine” philosophy drives the training curriculum at the LSU Center, one that facilitates reflection as a formative aspect of professional development. The design team created a platform in the building for three educational opportunities: personal reflection, recording of thoughts and intrapersonal dialogue.

LSU Medical Education Building at dusk

LSU Medical Education and Innovation Center at dusk

VOA + BBA defined spaces that dealt with mandated accreditation elements as well as those that focus on the ACGME (Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education) core competencies: patient care, medical knowledge, practice based learning and improvement, systems based practice, professionalism, interpersonal skills and communication, bringing a humanistic emphasis to the medical education experience.

As Mahaffey envisioned, the building serves as a campus in itself. It extends its reach in both directions with outdoor terraces, courtyards and gardens giving the students places of respite and allowing for spontaneous interactions.

The site plan preserved historic old live oaks and pines, allowing for scaled garden spaces where teaching and learning can occur outside of the building. The Reflective Garden offers numerous “rooms” for contemplation. The amphitheater-like Classroom Terrace serves as an outdoor teaching space for lectures, larger gatherings and group study. The second floor Teaching Terrace supports learning and the core competency of communication along with exposure to nature.


LSU got a great building, and Mahaffey got inspiration. “It was an eye opener for how we could work with an architect,” says Mahaffey. “The idea is to incorporate the way that Medical Education and Innovation Center project worked in our other projects. VOA really went above and beyond what the contract called for, and it paid dividends, as well as showing me that by spending a little more time on this, we can greatly improve our projects,” continues Mahaffey.

Now, LSU planners are working on internal processes to improve communication between designer, university, and facility user. Ideally, Mahaffey’s professional design group can bolster aesthetic value within the process and effectively shepherd projects so that final approval at LSU is a no-brainer.

Mahaffey wants LSU to initiate more interaction and active discussion with the state’s designers, in visioning and charrette-based settings if possible, because ultimately it produces better projects without up-ending the existing protocols.  He’d like the charrette process to become the new norm for interaction with architects, uncovering more options, both functionally and aesthetically, to be taken into consideration. The design for a new LSU athletic facility, he says, will involve intensive working sessions.

“Now, we’re meeting with the architectural team at different phases  to make sure we’re looking at all the options and having a dialogue with the designer. We’re encouraging our architect/engineer managers on the LSU side to become more vocal about the aesthetics. We’re not eliminating any boxes to check off, we’re just getting a lot of work done prior to checking it off.”

For Mahaffey and LSU, it’s not about ticking boxes, it’s about getting the best possible building for LSU and the state of Louisiana.

Size: 35,000sf
Team members: Rebel Roberts, Brenda Bush-Moline, Gayle Soberg, Lauren Andrysiak + Bradley-Blewster & Associates team (Lynn Bradley, Brett Bouillion, Erin Asa and Angela Keller)

Photos by Tom Rossiter

Story by John Dugan

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