July 21, 2015

10 Questions With… Jason Harper

The healthcare sector is a major driver of the U.S. economy, so it only makes sense that it should be the site of some of today’s most innovative architecture and design. At the head of the design pack is Jason Harper, associate principal at

Perkins + Will

and co-chair of the

Health Facilities Committee

, which recently won the design excellence award from the

AIA New York Chapter


Over the course of his 25-year career, Harper has lent his expertise to major projects such as The Carmen and John Thain Center for Prenatal Pediatrics at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, and Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center and the Sheikh Zayed Tower, both at the Johns Hopkins University. Here, he discusses his influences, the specific challenges for healthcare design, and the future of his industry.

Interior Design: What’s your first memory of


noticing how something was designed?

Jason Harper: My family was lucky enough to travel quite a bit when I was growing up. My father was an engineer and he was transferred to Sydney, Australia when I was six years old. As a result we travelled all around the world. Seeing different and wonderful new cities and places as a child was when I first noticed the impact of design. It was quite astonishing to arrive in “foreign” cities that were in basic ways very much like home, but that were all subtly different in a thousand ways. Everyday things that I took for granted were all somehow new and exciting and interesting. It started me really looking at the world.

ID: Was there a mentor in your schooling who really influenced or helped you?

JH: When I started in healthcare design, I needed to learn so much. There really is a body of knowledge unique to this type of design. My first boss, Norman Rosenfeld, taught me what I needed to know over the course of a few years and a few projects. After a while he said to me: “Okay, now that you know what you need to know, what are you going to do with it?” Ever since then, this has inspired me to push the envelope, and to seek excellence and innovation in what I do.

ID: What led you to focus on healthcare design?

JH: It was really serendipity that led to me landing a job in firm that focused on healthcare facilities. It wasn’t really a conscious choice. It was my first job in New York and I was lucky to land it during a pretty severe recession. Healthcare design is challenging and at times frustrating for the technical complexity of the work and relatively slow pace of the projects. From the beginning, however, I was taken with the mission of this type of work. Healthcare environments are places of special experience, encountered in times of stress and physical need. As such the experience of this type of facility and the journey through it is crucially important to patients, care-givers and family members. This has always made this type of design meaningful to me.

ID: Could you tell me a little about the New York Health District Programs, specifically in terms of what kind of designs the programs are inspiring?

JH: As healthcare reform in the U.S. has gained steam over the past few years, I started looking for ways to integrate strategies for health improvement, wellness and disease prevention into my work. It became obvious that the interface between hospitals and other healthcare facilities and their surrounding communities was an area that needed much improvement. At Wyckoff Heights Medical Center we are working to break down the fortress-like exterior of this hospital and open it up to the community. In this way, it will be less of an imposing institution and more a part of the everyday life of the community. Wyckoff is also looking beyond just treating the healthcare conditions of the patients that come into the hospital. We are working with them to develop strategies at the district scale for improving the health of the community and preventing the higher that average rates of asthma, hypertension, obesity and diabetes in the local population. This means that whenever we design the built environment we have a choice to consider—to either contribute to disease or to contribute to improving health and wellness of the population and the community.

ID: For the Carmen and John Thain Center, how did its use as a prenatal pediatrics facility influence the materials and designs you used?

JH: When considering prenatal health, environmental factors in the interior were paramount. Every material selection was chosen to eliminate environmental toxins in the interior environment, particularly endocrine disruptors and bio-accumulative substances that are not considered toxic in the concentrations present in readily available interior materials, but that accumulate in our bodies throughout our lifetimes, and that can be passed on from mother to child in utero or through breast milk.

ID: The ColumbiaDoctors Midtown project utilizes a color palette and range of artwork that’s a little warmer and darker than one might expect. How did the projects function inspire your choices?

JH: The artwork for the facility was a donation from the JPMorgan Chase collection. Integrating the artwork into the interior design was crucial and partly inspired the color palette. The facility is a large faculty practice outpatient center with multiple specialty practice groups. The bold color palette was chosen to provide individual identity to each practice group, but in an organized way that held together as an overall aesthetic. The color scheme was integrated into the design of the signage and aids in wayfinding throughout the block-long facility.

ID: The

Johns Hopkins Hospital

is a huge project—what was your biggest challenge in it?

JH: I came on as project manager for the interiors during construction. At the time, the project was undergoing a top to bottom redesign due to major donations from Bloomberg Philanthropies and The Zayed family that came after the start of construction. It was a fantastic opportunity to create a museum-quality design for this very special hospital. Artwork for the facility was specially commissioned and curated by Nancy Rosen, allowing for an extraordinary level of coordination between the art and the interior color and finish palette. Participating in this process was quite amazing. It was by far the largest and most complex project I had ever worked on—over 1.6 million square feet—and involved collaboration between teams in 4 of Perkins + Will’s offices and multiple sub-consultants. In this situation, an extraordinary and constant level of communication between all team members was necessary.

ID: How has healthcare facilities design changed over the course of your career?

JH: When I started, it was clear that the design of healthcare facilities was a field that needed much improvement. It was just moving beyond functional considerations to consider a whole field of experiential concerns. This has led to vast improvements in interior design for healthcare, but there is still much to improve! Evidence based design became a new mantra as the healthcare client base sought empirical evidence to convince them of the value of good design. Increased focus on the patient experience, inspired first by hospitality design as health systems increasingly competed with each other, has become even more important as patient satisfaction directly effects the bottom line of hospitals. Evidence also shows that what determines good health is much broader than traditional clinical health care. Healthcare systems are increasingly recognizing that they need to consider how the design of their facilities impacts public health, from the materials used in their interiors, to the energy efficiency of the building systems, and the walkability and street level interface of their campuses.

ID: From a design point of view, what kind of changes would you like to see?

JH: I think we need to recognize that our interaction with a healthcare facility is like a journey. We go there seeking to be healed and returned to health and our normal lives. Every stage in that journey, and the pathways between those stages, should be designed to be meaningful and memorable as places. Each step of way should support that experience of healing and help us in the path back to health. At the same time, it should contribute to the health, sustainability, resilience and vibrancy of our communities.

ID: What would be your dream project?

JH: My dream project would be a new kind of mixed-use hospital or health care facility that would be much more integrated into a community. Not the stand- alone fortresses we are used to. It would have a park running through it, but would also have vibrant walkable street fronts. It would be just be a part of everyday life.

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