Florida International University Develops Medical School From the Ground Up

Interdisciplinary Academic Medical Sciences Center Evolves Around It
Published 4-28-2009
  • Puzzle Pieces

    The College of Nursing, which is scheduled to move into this new building in 2009, will serve as the gateway to FIU’s new Academic Health Sciences Center. The newly establish School of Medicine will then move into the space vacated by the current College of Nursing.

    Images courtesy of HOK top; José Rodríguez, FIU middle; HOK bottom.

Medical schools are often the most costly, well-established, and storied institutions on an academic campus, so establishing a new one from scratch at an existing public university can be a daunting challenge. At Florida International University (FIU) in Miami, the process caused a quantum shift in the way administrators approach both scientific research and capital planning, and it taught them that one informs the other: Academic goals influence the operational model, while operational changes inspire new ways of thinking about education and research.

The process resulted in a master plan that calls for nearly 950,000 sf of new construction in six buildings by the end of 2012, plus another 223,000 sf in two more buildings in the future, representing a 30 percent growth of the campus.

Several years ago, FIU’s president and administration put forward the idea of starting a medical school. As the idea developed, it coalesced as part of a new Academic Health Sciences Center (AHSC). The vision was to create a synergistic venue with the goal of knocking down traditional academic silos. The College of Arts and Sciences includes the departments of biological sciences, chemistry, environmental studies, physics, psychology, and statistics. The College of Nursing and Health Sciences fields programs in athletic training, communication sciences and disorders, health information management, health sciences, nursing, and occupational and physical therapies. The Stempel School of Public Health and the School of Social Work complete the portfolio of health sciences. The academic programs combine with the College of Medicine to form the AHSC.

“This was a totally new shift in mentality proposed by the provost,” says José Rodríguez, FIU’s director of Real Estate Development and Planning. “The challenge presented was, rather than build all these expensive spaces and simulation labs for each program, why don’t we share them?”

“Part of the academic mission was the integration of graduate, undergraduate, and health sciences into one cohesive campus,” says Jocelyn Frederick, former principal of Perkins+Will Inc., the architectural firm that has been working with FIU on the project. “We tossed around a lot of ideas about where to locate this campus, but the provost’s direction for integration made it very clear that it needed to be near Arts and Sciences.”

Three years ago, the University obtained funding for two new buildings to house the College of Nursing and Health Sciences and the Stempel School of Public Health, which both currently share a building on the 342-acre urban campus. Upon the relocation of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences and the Stempel School of Public Health to their respective new facilities, the fledgling medical school’s first 40 students will move into the vacated building in August 2009. The medical school will then continue to expand into the remainder of these spaces until it reaches its full cadre of students in 2013. The long-range plan is for the medical school to have its own building.

Addressing the need for the logical development of an integrated Academic Health Sciences Center on the FIU campus is one of the goals of the master plan effort. Another goal is to increase the University’s connections with the surrounding community and improve the community’s access to healthcare, at the same time as the University raises its international profile as an educational research institution.

Facility Planning Takes an Integrated Approach

The concept of interdisciplinary research and education has driven many aspects of building design and location. Adjacent to the nursing school, connected by a sky bridge, will be the Science Classroom Complex, which will contain additional research laboratories, a vivarium, imaging equipment, centralized hazardous materials storage, and the centralized technology infrastructure serving the needs of students in medicine, nursing, arts and sciences, and public health.

“Five years ago, our nursing building would have housed just nursing,” says Rodríguez. “Now, the ownership of buildings will be less identified with an individual school because of our interdisciplinary operational model.”

The nursing building will have a 185-seat auditorium, available for use by any program in the AHSC. The same is true of two 60-seat and two 45-seat lecture halls on the second floor, and a multi-disciplinary research lab on the fifth floor. The auditorium and lecture halls are equipped with multimedia dual-screen projectors for distance learning, meaning their work has the potential to reach even beyond the wide boundaries of the AHSC.

Likewise, the Science Classroom Complex will incorporate some of the same design features as the medical school so that students can comfortably make use of both buildings. For example, it will have casual study spaces with liquid marker boards and wide corridors with alcoves and power sources, features that are prevalent in a medical school.

In a corner of the complex will be the newly created College of Public Health, which increased its stature from a “school” to a “college” as a result of this process. The Stempel School of Public Health and the School of Social Work, formerly a separate entity, will now be a part of that new college.

In a vote of confidence in the University’s new health sciences model, the Florida Department of Health decided to centralize its Miami-Dade County operations in the University’s public health building, which will increase the campus’ level of community outreach. A planned ambulatory clinic will take community outreach one step further and serve as the basis for a future 125-bed teaching hospital.

“It was important that community outreach also include the medical community. By creating a 24/7 health sciences campus, FIU can provide for continuing education of health professionals in the area,” says Frederick.

The campus expansion will also be a boon to economic development around the University, which was a convincing argument in favor of the new medical school when the University presented the plan to the Board of Governors, says Rodríguez.

“Projections indicate that health sciences could constitute 50 percent of the student population of 28,000 FTEs,” adds Frederick. “That will have a ripple effect on both the campus and the community.”

The Florida Department of Health is bringing 500 employees to campus, which shaped the concept of a 500,000-sf parking garage that has 25,000 sf of retail space on the ground floor. There also is interest among private developers in constructing a large-scale hotel on campus, which would be the only one in the immediate area.

Envisioning the Big Picture

At first, Rodríguez noted the difficulty experienced in getting the faculty and administrators to participate in the planning process. Part of the problem was that the administrators—including an interim dean of public health, a dean of nursing, a new vice president for research, and the founding dean for the new medical school—had little history of working together.

“Our deans were engaged for the first time in working together on a planning project of this scale, and they were being challenged with some very difficult questions. The magnitude of the question could also be a factor; after all, we were asking them to project their needs five, ten, and twenty years into the future.” says Rodríguez.

It also was very difficult for them to envision what their new campus would look like. The solution was to employ three-dimensional images.

“Floor plans didn’t excite them,” remembers Rodríguez. “When we started to show them in 3-D and superimpose our plans over existing spaces on campus, they began to visualize the scope of this plan and understand the implications of their decisions.”

The implications are huge, considering the volume of space the University plans to construct:

    • College of Nursing/Health Science Lab/Clinic: 101,000 sf (estimated completions date: December 2009)
    • College of Public Health (59,120 sf) / Florida Department of Health: 93,500 sf (March 2012)
    • Science Classroom Complex: 121,000 sf (March 2012)
    • Satellite chiller plant: 12,000 sf (December 2009)
    • 2,100-space parking garage/retail/public safety: 504,500 sf (March 2011)
    • Science Laboratory Complex: 169,600 sf (Future)
    • Health Sciences Conference Center: 53,760 sf (Future)

The FIU campus today could be described as “suburban,” with most buildings having no more than three stories. The AHSC will change that: The nursing building will be five stories tall; the Florida Department of Health could be as tall as nine stories.

“The reality is that we could not accept a model of three-story buildings, unless we were willing to forgo green space,” says Rodríguez. “We had to look at how we located these buildings in a way which made sense within the existing fabric of the campus. We wanted to create a space that invites the community. An early model put buildings at the corners of the campus, but that had the University turning its back on the community.”

To create a more pedestrian-friendly environment, all parking garages are located at the edge of campus, which encourages people to leave their cars and walk.

Looking Ahead

The medical school will stay in the former nursing and public health building until the University raises the necessary funds to construct a new medical school building. That solves one piece of the puzzle, but what about all those other schools and departments that make up the rest of the AHSC? The University has developed a long-range plan—over five, 10, and 20 years—that details the placement of existing and future programs in existing buildings and in anticipated new construction. Programs will cycle out of old spaces and into new ones, freeing up space for new programs, the same way nursing is making space for the medical school.

“We knew we should not be building these buildings in an isolated way,” says Rodríguez.

While each building has to work well with the others on campus—both aesthetically and in the circulation patterns in creates—it also has to be self-sustaining. Because this is such a long-term project, it is important that the campus not look half-finished between construction projects.

There are educational obstacles to overcome, as well. FIU needs to embrace the concept of an interdisciplinary teaching and research model and everything that entails, including collaborative “eye-to-eye” learning and mixed use, 24/7, flexible teaching and clinical environments. Flexibility is critical, considering that graduate programs change 40 percent of their space needs every five years, and medical center education programs change their technical spaces almost every year.

How will research be integrated with each college and what new courses, subjects, and research will be shared by all colleges? How will FIU manage shared space? These are questions that will need to be asked and evaluated on an on-going basis to ensure that a balance is achieved for all of FIU.

One solution being adopted by FIU is to take research out of the exclusive purview of the individual schools and departments. Historically, research was typically managed by individual colleges or schools, explains Rodríguez. The Office of Sponsored Research Administration (OSRA), now led by a new vice president for research, was created specifically to administer centralized research. The new approach will reinforce the concept of “cluster hiring,” which focuses on a research topic or project and not necessarily a single academic department.

“The medical school is just getting off the ground,” says Rodríguez. “Our hope is that academically, once we build out the school, we will be looking long-term for collaboration between medicine, public health, arts and sciences and nursing.”

The biggest issue seems to be the scheduling of space, he explains.

“As an example, the interesting thing I found in this process is that the nursing students do more patient care in the first two years, while the medical students do more academic study. The most challenging factor is the scheduling of resources.

“That’s the difficulty in breaking down the silo,” he continues. “The nursing students’ objectives are perceived as different from the medical students’.”

Rodríguez is optimistic that it will work out. “We have a noble idea,” he concludes.

By Lisa Wesel