How one medical school is building stronger connections with its students

Anatomy classes taught in a windowless room. Classrooms, with fixed seating and little flexibility, carved out of dark lecture halls. With an opportunity to create a new home, faculty, staff, and students at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine (Heritage College) in Athens, were faced with a central question: how can our osteopathic medical school wholly embrace wellness in a new facility?

With only a few finishing touches remaining, the Heritage College’s new three-story, 120,000-square-foot building reflects a new curriculum and forward-thinking learning spaces designed to prepare future physicians for careers in a rapidly changing health care profession. With its central, light-filled atrium, the flexible, team-based learning and teaching labs with sweeping outdoor views, a fitness center and meditation spaces, students and faculty will “bump into wellness” throughout Heritage Hall, said Kenneth Johnson, DO, Executive Dean of the Heritage College and Chief Medical Affairs Officer for Ohio University. “We built wellness into our curriculum and throughout every part of our space,” added Dr. Johnson.

While the red brick exterior reflects the surrounding historic campus buildings, the building design works in concert with the medical school’s new curriculum to push the boundaries of modern medical education. Crucially, it was the innovative Pathways to Health and Wellness Curriculum that drove the design, developed with our associated Ohio architects, Design Group. The three pillars of osteopathic medicine holistic health – mind, body, and spirit – are fundamental to the building design, expressed beautifully through its openness, infusion of light and a focus on wellness that encourage greater connections between individuals and more physical activity.

Lit by a trellised skylight and exterior windows, the airy central atrium is transparent and open. Its visible staircases connecting academic spaces on all floors and the airy, welcoming circulation on each floor encircling the atrium promote movement. Classrooms with windows to the outdoors as well as to the atrium pivot from traditional lecture-based spaces to flexible, collaborative small-group learning spaces and integrated active-learning labs, effortlessly re-configured as needed. Students and faculty can work together easily within this building, and with the integrated videoconferencing technology throughout the building, they can just as easily connect virtually to their colleagues at the college’s other two campuses. One third of the space is devoted to hands-on instruction areas for clinical training and assessment and for osteopathic manipulative medicine and anatomy. Biophilic principals are incorporated throughout, with outdoor spaces designed as part of the educational environment, encouraging student, faculty, and staff connections to the healing and calming properties of nature.

Decisions to prioritize the atrium, vertical circulation, fitness and healing spaces, healthy eating options, a water filtration system, connections to outdoor spaces – all are key components of the International WELL Building Institute’s WELL Building Standards®, underscoring the college’s commitment to creating a healthy environment. We anticipate that Heritage Hall will be the first medical educational building in the country to achieve WELL building standards.

The grand atrium draws in natural light from above and connects users to the green spaces surrounding the building.
The design considers views and access to the surrounding area including a potential future green, existing University buildings including research buildings, the local hospital immediately to the southwest and parking.

With its location on the university’s Union Street Green, Heritage Hall is a connector to other facilities on campus and also to the Athens community. Community members will be encouraged to use the atrium for events and volunteers as “standardized patients” for student labs. In mid-January, as the inaugural use of the building, the Heritage College welcomed hundreds of frontline healthcare workers into its spaces for their COVID-19 vaccinations, which were provided by the local health department.

Heritage Hall was named in honor of the Osteopathic Heritage Foundation, whose $105 million Vision 2020 award to the college included $21 million for this state-of-the-art facility.

Just days after the vaccinations, we spoke with Dr. Johnson and Jody Gerome, DO, Associate Dean of Curriculum and Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, about their vision for the new building.

How did the Pathways to Health and Wellness Curriculum influence the design of the building?

Dr. Johnson: When we changed our curricular model, we wanted to highlight active-based learning and flexibility. From the flexible furniture to the cutting-edge technology solutions, it leaves us with so many more opportunities, including outside of the classrooms. We were able to design a building that went hand-in-glove with our curriculum, and in a way that will be able to evolve over time. We wanted to “Walk the walk and talk the talk.”

Dr. Gerome: Our old building had all sorts of limitations in terms of how students could learn, teachers could teach. But our new space allows students to split up, work in smaller groups and engage with faculty in different ways. We’ve gone from the traditional lecture halls, or fixed spaces, to flexible, easily convertible ones to meet student and faculty needs, marrying design with technology. And the building itself is full of light and life, even on bleak winter days.

How does the design reflect osteopathic medicine and wellness?

Dr. Johnson: The design of our new building matches the experience and academic training that happens at Heritage College. We designed the space to fit the curriculum. The osteopathic focus is at the core, starting with wellness, our approach to care and resilience that is built into the space.

Medical school is stressful, taking care of patients is stressful, so we feel that wellness and resilience are really important to build into our space and our curriculum – to have our space be able to promote our curriculum naturally. We’ve designed the building so you can really just bump into wellness – on balconies and other outdoor areas, through windows in our labs, providing natural light, and the space to facilitate student and faculty well-being.

Dr. Gerome: Osteopathic principles and practices are the foundation of our teaching and learning. If you look at the overall building, it’s reflected in all of the WELL features, too. There’s a meditation room and an open workout space designed to promote student health and well-being during their free time. Collaboration space – openness of classrooms, the atrium – is designed to encourage one-on-one learning, small groups, and more.

How were Heritage College stakeholders involved in the design?

Dr. Johnson: Transparency has been so important to realizing this building. We engaged people in so many ways and on many levels. We got people to think about all of the different spaces and how they would be used throughout the day and from year-to-year. We solicited an enormous amount of feedback on everything from classrooms and faculty offices to wellness spaces and locker rooms, resulting in people knowing what was coming. Our design drivers – our North Star we kept looking at – were medical education, the learning experience for students, and creating the well building and well space. The design team did a great job channeling our philosophical approach to care for each other and for our patients.

One key to creating a successful facility is fully engaging end users in the process. We kicked off the project with visioning sessions and precedent tours, and regular sessions were held with different groups: core committee, leadership, students, and the general public. Individuals were encouraged to drop-in to a Heritage Hall ‘war room’ where they could ask questions and view updated drawings, models, calendars, furniture and material samples and other project-related information throughout the duration of the project.
A café at the main entry is a place to refresh, collaborate or study, and the community is invited in to become part of the Heritage College family.

What is the Impact on the University and the Community?

Dr. Johnson: We will be an anchor not just for Ohio University and the Union Street Green, but also for the Athens community and the entire region. Our building was designed to be accessible to the community for events, to use our street level café, for our physician partners, and more. For our alumni, we will be able to engage them through outreach, and can attract a good deal more support that we couldn’t in our old building.

Centralized stairways are placed for ease of access, encouraging users to be more active throughout the day. Classrooms with glass fronts prominently display teaching and learning activities, as well as and the integrated academic technologies. These classrooms are designed to be flexible, with built-in options to open into to each other allowing for larger group sessions, and they can also open into the atrium, creating much needed space for large gatherings.
Heritage Hall opens doors for COVID-19 vaccine distribution
"I can't imagine a better way to kick off a new year in our new medical education facility,” said Dr. Johnson. “Today's vaccination clinic is truly a new beginning. You can see the hope and relief in the faces of the first responders and healthcare workers who are receiving and administering the vaccines. I am incredibly honored that the debut of Heritage Hall is supporting the historic effort to eradicate COVID-19." The first vaccine distribution in Heritage Hall took place Jan. 7, when more than 200 first responders and home health care professionals received vaccinations.
The new building features a state-of-the-art gross anatomy lab. The former anatomy lab was in an interior, windowless room. The new third floor lab is flooded with natural light. Academic technologies provide support for instruction, including direct connection to learning activities in other rooms or at the college’s other campuses. The lab was also designed for ease of operational support, with overhead power supplies and direct, easy access to the cadaver lab, additional support spaces and a freight elevator.
The central day-lit atrium is surrounded by active learning spaces, offices, collaboration zones and study rooms. The third-floor learning resource center at left has a gorgeous, unobstructed view into the atrium.