An architect who has entirely lost his eyesight seems like an unlikely champion for a 410,000 square-foot building for a major health system. And yet, Chris Downey, architect, planner, and consultant for HOK, a global design, architecture, engineering, and planning firm, who lost his sight a decade ago, is precisely the right man for the job.

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Building an Emphasis on The Entire Patient Experience

“When I was brought in to consult on this project, hospital leadership’s level of care for the visually impaired patient experience was evident right away,” says Downey. “The way they approached the project has been unique and wonderful.”

Scheduled to open its doors in 2022, the UPMC Vision and Rehabilitation Tower is one of three new state-of-the-art projects in which UPMC will invest $2 billion in the next several years. The nine-story facility promises to bring clinicians, researchers, educators, and industry partners together to deliver innovative rehabilitation and ophthalmic research and care.

A Unique Perspective

Downey brings a unique perspective to the project, one that a sighted architect simply couldn’t. After abruptly and unexpectedly losing his sight in 2008 when having a benign brain tumor removed, Downey’s future as an architect was very much in doubt.

“Of course, at the time it was devastating,” says Downey. “I didn’t know how or if I could continue in my field. But I came to realize fairly quickly that the creative process is an intellectual process and I just needed new tools. In many ways, I’m a much better architect today than I was when I still had my sight.”

UPMC Vision and Rehabilitaion Tower

A Multisensory Experience For Patients and All Visitors

Better, Downey says, because he has come to experience buildings and architecture in a completely different way than he once did.

“It’s not that I’m a better architect for blind people because I’m blind myself,” says Downey. “It’s simply that after losing my sight, I have such an appreciation for the richness that a multisensory architectural experience creates. When we take all of the senses into account, it makes for a better experience, not just for the visually impaired, but for everyone.”

Form, Function, and Meticulous Detail

The enriching multisensory environments that will be incorporated into the UPMC project are quite extensive. Physical cues will help patients navigate their surroundings from each point of entry and throughout the tower. There will be lighting features to create contrast and brightness, rich materials, textures, and surfaces that will aid people with canes, and sound techniques will be employed as wayfinding tools. Ultimately, the environment will offer seamless design elements that enhance both physical accessibility and the entire architectural experience.

UPMC’s Disabilities Resource Center collaborated on the project from the beginning. The center and its employees provided input on how to make the new facility accessible to everyone and satisfy design guidelines supported by research from the U.S. Architectural and Compliance Board. That included available and accessible parking, along with accessibility throughout the center.

“You think of your own path of entry to a facility and all of the different barriers that you might encounter if you were a person with a disability,” says Ashli Molinero, director of the Disabilities Resource Center. “It’s everything from the parking, to the sidewalks, to the entry, to navigation in the lobby, the elevators, the registration desks, the clinical exam rooms, making sure equipment is accessible – basically everything.”

Molinero said the Disabilities Resource Center also will work with staff at the new facility to prepare them for a high volume of patients with disabilities.

The building will also include an innovative, low-vision, clinic-gym hybrid, an interactive healing center, exam rooms, therapy stations, and a central gym. There will be a mocked-up apartment space and street lab where patients can experience simulations to enhance their life skills in the face of visual impairment.

“This is an incredible opportunity for UPMC,” Molinero says. “Our commitment is just incredible to meet the needs of patients with disabilities. I think just the creation of the center itself is reflective of that.”

Says Downey: “The patient experience is so important. This project has been one where there’s been every bit as much care and attention paid to the patient experience as there has been to the medicine and the research.”

About UPMC

A $21 billion health care provider and insurer, Pittsburgh-based UPMC is inventing new models of patient-centered, cost-effective, accountable care. The largest nongovernmental employer in Pennsylvania, UPMC integrates more than 90,000 employees, 40 hospitals, 700 doctors’ offices and outpatient sites, and a 3.8 million-member Insurance Services Division, the largest medical insurer in western Pennsylvania. In the most recent fiscal year, UPMC contributed $1.4 billion in benefits to its communities, including more care to the region’s most vulnerable citizens than any other health care institution, and paid more than $500 million in federal, state, and local taxes. Working in close collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences, UPMC shares its clinical, managerial, and technological skills worldwide through its innovation and commercialization arm, UPMC Enterprises, and through UPMC International. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside on its annual Honor Roll of America’s Best Hospitals and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. For more information, go to UPMC.com.