When asked to generate design concepts for a 10,000-square-foot eye clinic planned for Chennai, India, a group of first-year masters students in the University of Manitoba's interior design program emphasized the fine points in order to make visits easier for patients.
Assistant professor Kelley Beaverford first heard of the project through her role as executive director of the new Manitoba chapter of Architects Without Borders (AWB), a non-profit group of architects, designers and others that has worked on international projects for about 20 years.
The clients, Vision Foundation and Unite for Sight, needed good quality, free help to design a clinic for people with degenerative, but treatable, eye diseases on the southeast Indian coast.
They wanted a base from which they could serve patients from up to 30 neighbouring rural communities, where poverty contributes to alarming rates of such ailments as cataracts, glaucoma and vision loss related to diabetes.
Beaverford saw a rare chance to let her studio class students work on a real-life project under guidance of a team of 10 professional AWB members.
"My friends at other schools couldn't believe what I got to work on," said student James McCallan. "I've always worked on theoretical projects — build with titanium if you want — but for this project we had to worry about a real budget and a specific purpose and population."
Looking over his model of a waiting room and reception area, McCallan imagined the patients who would fill it.
"These are people who've maybe never seen a doctor (who are) coming in for a drastic procedure, to get their sight back," he said. "My critical position is to decrease the sense of isolation for patients, and to focus on camaraderie and communication by designing for all the senses."
For example, he specified that Jasmine and Hibiscus plants should be placed inside to give a pleasant and familiar scent to waiting patients. In his main hallways, McCallan called for pressed bamboo flooring. The hollow sound of footsteps on bamboo would then contrast with the sound of pedestrian traffic on polished concrete elsewhere, helping visitors and patients perceive their entry into a high-traffic area.
Another student, Lauren Bachynski, also used local flora when she designed bamboo handrails with carved notches to indicate upcoming changes in hallway direction. And Andrea Sosa's plans called for small waterfalls and long tubs of running water to orient patients along long corridors and entranceways.
McCallan said such detail in the pre-design work adds a valuable aspect to the building process. He pointed out where his small-scale hallway model included a set of five parallel handrails along corridors. (Blindfolded walks around the U of M campus proved that handrails were not always where people grabbed for them.) He also built jump-scale models — which are larger in scale than the main model — to show, among other things, detail of the joints for the building's post-and-beam construction and an actual-size example of how he wants the rails to connect to the walls.
"Architecture usually pays attention to site and circulation and spatial planning," said McCallan. "But an interior design standpoint allows us to delve into the building and focus on spaces to generate the building from the inside out."
Beaverford's nine students experienced a lot more collaboration than usual for a studio class.
"I've never seen so many people involved in a project," she said. The students helped each other when they could, a 10-member team of AWB professionals attended the studio class once a month to give guidance and suggestions, and AWB student members from other departments came around often with suggestions.
"Someone from landscape architecture would look over my shoulder and say, 'You shouldn't do that,' and they'd usually be right," said McCallan, whose plan was one of the three picked for the clients to see.
Hijab Musba, a Sri Lankan-born architect at Prairie Architects and AWB member, presented the projects to Unite for Sight and Vision Foundation officials in Channai on Wednesday.
"We were lucky she went home for her sister's wedding," said Beaverford, who asked Musba to take a side trip. "We had no money for her ticket."
Musba saw the actual site and met local architects who will supervise construction. After Beaverford hears what the clients liked best about the proposals they saw, she'll pick a team of students and professionals to come up with a final plan.
"The land is bought and the client hopes to start construction this summer," she said, hoping to present final plans and drawings no later than early March.
THE year-old Architects Without Borders Manitoba has about 50 members, including students and professionals. Vancouver also has a chapter, and there are AWB members in Toronto and Calgary without chapters.
The local AWB chapter first worked on long-term Tsunami relief work in Sri Lanka and a graphic design project for a library in Indonesia. Last summer, student and professional members helped Habitat for Humanity build homes in Winnipeg. Beaverford and
15 students plan to travel to Turkey in May to help build a children's library.