Listening to the client is just what the doctor ordered.
Photography by Dan Taylor
Listening is central to the physician’s art, so when bDot Architecture Inc. designed the headquarters building for American Family Care, listening played an equally crucial role.
“Listening to the client at the very beginning of a project, before any work is done, is absolutely the most important part of our process,” says Brian Roberson, AIA LEED BD+C IIDA, principal of the Birmingham architectural firm. “Yes, it’s listening to the functional requirements, budget and needs that the building is required to meet, but equally important is listening for ‘who’ the client is. This type of listening involves more than just hearing words but involves seeing how they work, what they do, but most importantly who they are.”
“As a studio, the first thing we do for each project is openly verbalize or draw what our own predispositions are. It doesn’t matter what type of project it is. Whether a building, piece of furniture, a product or piece of artwork, getting our own bias out in the open, almost like a confession, is a critical part to clear the way for the creative process. Another aspect of the process that we have come to realize is that it is not something where we say ok; we are going to meet at 1 p.m. this afternoon to design this project. Once we put all of the information in our brains, there is a time where it simmers in the background of our minds while we work on other things. Then out of nowhere, one of us will grab a pen and paper, piece of cardboard, wood, metal, something from the trash can, whatever, and start the discussion which often turns into a whirlwind of ideas and concepts that are then sorted and parsed for what we’ve heard from the client,” Roberson says.The client in this case has a remarkable record of growth in the healthcare industry. In 1982, D. Bruce Irwin, M.D. opened the first American Family Care Clinic (AFC) in Birmingham. All AFC clinics are designed, equipped and staffed to provide accessible primary care, urgent care, minor emergency treatment, and occupational medicine. AFC pioneered the concept of non-emergency-room urgent care, resulting in an average patient visit of about an hour from registration to discharge. Underlying this efficiency is a high-tech, high-touch approach—including digital x-rays, on-site lab testing, state-of-the-art diagnostics, electronic medical records, and well-trained teams of medical professionals. By the end of 2017, AFC will operate more than 200 facilities in 26 states, and care for more than two million patients a year. During the next five years, the company expects to have more than 500 urgent care clinics across the U.S. on its path to becoming one of the most widely known and admired brands in health care.
“So for the AFC Corporate Office, we met and listened to Dr. Irwin describe not only the needs of the building but also listened to his passion about providing a needed medical service to people. It really is more than a business to him. He shared with us AFC’s mission statement which speaks to all of this, so that is where we started,” Roberson says.
To ingrain the company’s identity into this project, the mission statement and vision of AFC was interpreted in a dot-dash pattern and organized into a DNA profile-type sequence which was then used to guide the design of the reception desk and taken throughout the project (down to the windows, carpet and tile) as a subtle form of ornamentation, thus allowing the pattern to have both a practical and symbolic language. As another symbolic gesture addressing the company’s commitment to people, the graphic behind the reception desk is created using thousands of individual faces, with employee faces forming the AFC logo.