A Good Neighbor

Founded in 1824, Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson Medical College is the largest private medical school in the United States. Its mission is to “educate professionals in a variety of disciplines who will form and lead the integrated healthcare delivery and research teams of tomorrow.” The school’s innovative teaching strategies have placed it at the top of its field. When the college decided to add a new building to its urban campus, the administration needed to make definitive design choices that would serve both the school and the neighboring community.

Since the building would be the first new construction project at the school in 15 years, it was essential that the construction process and overall result not alienate local neighbors. School officials wanted to create a striking and efficient space for students, faculty, and the local Philadelphia community.

Burt Hill was approached to design the new 135,000-sq.-ft. Dorrance H. Hamilton Building, an educational facility that would create an integrated classroom setting in order to foster a team environment among students. During initial discussions, the school strongly emphasized its need for campus identity. For years, the urban Philadelphia grounds had been scattered throughout several city blocks, which made it difficult to unite the campus. The lack of campus identity also made it hard to establish a relationship with the neighboring community. It was clear that the new space would need to be aesthetically pleasing, as well as functional.

“We are committed to creating open spaces and to constructing buildings that are human in scale, outward-looking, and express our University’s openness toward our Philadelphia neighbors,” said Robert L. Barchi, M.D., Ph.D., president of Thomas Jefferson University.

A Collaborative Approach
The designers at Burt Hill were inspired by the task at hand. A planning committee was established to make sure everyone’s needs were addressed. In order to ensure a successful and collaborative design process, the committee held bi-monthly meetings to review three-dimensional computer designs. These three-dimensional images of the building helped the committee to fully understand the design. In addition to those meetings, the committee met with neighborhood groups in an effort to keep them informed of the ways the building would affect the community. “The school is located in a beautiful area in Center City Philadelphia that is home to both residences and businesses,” said Chris Miller of Burt Hill. “We felt it was necessary to incorporate the neighborhood fabric into our design plans from the very beginning.”

After analyzing all of the information gathered, the solutions and recommendations incorporated into the design involved maximizing daylight and green space and obtaining a greater sense of community involvement. In order to achieve these goals, the building was pulled to the western half of the site, creating a view of the whole campus. This tactic helps make the campus more manageable for students and visitors because it provides a gateway to the campus by enhancing the connection between the southern and northern portions of the campus and maximizes the size of the green space and plaza.

The materials that were used in construction complement the building’s general theme of unity. For instance, the curved, glass façade provides views out into the plaza, as well as views of the activity within. This encourages neighborhood participation and curiosity. The building has a rooftop terrace that overlooks the plaza, further accentuating the green space. The plaza also features seating and space for public art.

Creating Campus Identity
The building enriches the campus image by welcoming its role as part of the community. Instead of filling every inch of space with concrete and steel, it works as part of an open space. Another major aspect of the building is the 252-space underground parking garage. Prior to the construction of this complex, the parking garages that served the University consumed half of a city block and distracted from the identity of the campus. The new underground parking garage allows for the campus and the city to reclaim more than an acre of street-level open space. Additionally, the materials from the pre-existing parking lot were recycled and are being saved for future projects.

As downtown Philadelphia’s largest infusion of green space in a half-century, the 1.4 acres of open green space in front of the building is a welcome addition to the neighborhood. All who visit the Jefferson campus can now enjoy tree-lined sidewalks, improved lighting, and enhanced landscaping. As restaurants and shops pop up, the campus is quickly becoming a destination for local residents and visitors. “It is really nice to have a safe, outdoor place right in the center of the busy city,” said local resident Ashley Morris.

The design and structure of the Dorrance H. Hamilton building reflects the reciprocal relationship between the school and the city. “We envision a campus that becomes a clear cultural destination, not just for our academic family, but also for the residents of our city,” added Dr. Barchi.

Thomas Jefferson Medical College is reinventing the medical education platform. The overall objective of integrating classes is to encourage teamwork. Therefore, it is fitting that while integration is a central theme inside of the building, it also plays a prominent role throughout the community. 

David Madeira, AIA, is a director of Burt Hill’s Philadelphia, PA, office. He works on a variety of higher education projects throughout the country. David can be reached at [email protected]