Assembly speaker calls for architecture that promotes human dignity

July 1, 2018


SAN DIEGO — When Michael Murphy's father was gravely ill, the patient was advised by his care providers to walk around the hospital corridor following a surgery. The layout followed what Murphy described as a "dogtrot" floor plan, with narrow halls. No natural light penetrated the grim institutional corridor.

Michael Murphy
Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr./© CHA

It struck Murphy, who was an architecture and design student at the time, that this hospital held little aesthetic appeal for patients or families and its design may have contributed to their stress and discomfort. He thought designers could do better by way of patients and staff by creating medical buildings that were functional, pleasing to be in and that promoted human dignity.

Murphy, co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit architecture and design firm MASS Design Group, delivered a keynote address at the Catholic Health Assembly on June 12, telling the audience: "The buildings we live in shape us in measurable and immeasurable ways."

MASS Design Group got its start when Murphy, his MASS co-founder Alan Ricks and others worked in 2008 to design and build the Butaro District Hospital in Rwanda, a project of Partners In Health and the Rwandan Ministry of Health. Partners In Health is well-known for its international work providing health care to the poor.

MASS Design Group's approach to architecture, particularly in the developing world, includes sourcing materials and labor locally, incorporating natural materials and employing laborers and artisans from the region where a project is being built in an approach known as locally fabricated or "lo-fab" construction.

For the Butaro hospital, workers hand cut volcanic rock for the walls. The hospital was designed to reduce the transmission of infectious disease. Outdoor walkways and shady seating areas encourage patients to spend time outside including when they are conversing with caregivers. This reduces exposure to contaminated surfaces and air in the patients' rooms, Murphy said. Patient beds look out on views of the natural world. Sunlight and nature elevate moods, he said, and may decrease a patient's perception of pain.

With offices in Boston and the Rwandan capital of Kigali, MASS Design Group now has projects in about a dozen countries including the United States.

Murphy said the medical facilities MASS Design Group is building in the developing world are energy efficient, and are welcoming for patients, their families and staff. Some campuses have housing for staff, family attendants and outpatients who may travel great distances from their homes for care.

Murphy said there are social, economic, political and emotional consequences to the built world and he and his colleagues consider those aspects when designing a project.

Buildings, he said, can advance a community's health and prosperity, creating jobs for laborers and those who will work there after construction is complete. Improved infrastructure — such as renewable power sources and on-site wastewater treatment systems — can promote health and sustainable operations. Buildings can create opportunities for human advancement. Murphy gave as an example a school and community center in the Republic of the Congo that now serves hundreds of people.

He said some of MASS Design's current collaborations are geared toward trying to stop the next epidemics. Among its projects, a new African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases in Ede, Nigeria, will involve researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology working with African doctors and scientists to gather data and research to slow or halt the spread of disease there.



Copyright © 2018 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.

Copyright © 2018 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.