Abandoned Big-box Stores Are Transformed into Medical Facilities to Make Health Care More Accessible and Appealing

At a recent commercial real-estate industry luncheon, the topic of the day focused on health-care development in the next five years. Of the many discussions that ensued, two interrelated topics rose among the ranks of primary concerns:

The curved red wall and glass canopy was added to “break” the box form and create a welcoming entry for Wellspring Medical Center.

The curved red wall and glass canopy was added to “break” the box form and create a welcoming entry for Wellspring Medical Center.

  • Health-care reform trends demonstrate a need to take provider services off hospital campuses and into the communities where patients live.
  • The U.S. economy during the past five years has created a growing catalog of large existing buildings that are vacant and abandoned.

It’s no secret the public is looking for ways to reduce spending on health care. It also is no secret that healthcare providers need to reduce their facilities’ costs. Taking health care out of the most expensive building, hospitals, and placing it into lower-cost structures in local communities is one way to achieve this while bringing care closer to populations.

The economy has forced many businesses to disappear, including a fair number of those that used a big-box type of structure. In addition, many big-box buildings have been left behind because they are too small to accommodate the trend toward superstores. These empty structures are typically located in prime locations for retail—on major streets with great visibility, easy access by car and often served by public transportation—perfect for a health facility.

The empty Kmart building that would become Wellspring Medical Center for Extraordinary Living, Woodburn, Ore., was built in the early 1990s and was in good condition. PHOTO: Clark/Kjos Architects LLC

Before: The empty Kmart building that would become Wellspring Medical Center for Extraordinary Living, Woodburn, Ore., was built in the early 1990s and was in good condition. PHOTO: Clark/Kjos Architects LLC

What if we consider the previous as statements of demand and supply? Is there a development model that could allow and even foster an adaptive reuse of this warehousing style of architecture to function as medical space? Could it be user friendly and appealing to the occupants—patients and staff?

Wellspring Medical Center for Extraordinary Living

Silverton Health needed space for doctors close to its patients in the community of Woodburn, Ore. It had been renting space in various small buildings around town but sought a larger facility to bring the doctors together and support ancillary services, such as physical therapy, diagnostics and disease-maintenance programs.

An older Kmart in Woodburn was shuttered because its 90,000-square-foot size did not meet the business’ new superstore standard. The hospital’s administrator arranged a meeting with our firm, Clark/Kjos Architects LLC, Seattle and Portland, Ore., at the abandoned Kmart building to ask whether we thought we could transform it for health-care needs. He pointed out that it was so cheap to buy he couldn’t resist at least considering it.

The site, too, was advantageous: The building is located on a prominent commercial strip with excellent visibility. A traffic light is located at its vehicular entrance. At first, we thought: “Impossible! This is the most inhumane building imaginable—hard shelled and windowless, in the middle of a sea of asphalt”. But then it hit us; we could cut holes in the blank walls for windows and insert gardens into the middle of the structure for daylight, as well as landscape part of the oversized parking lot, totally transforming it while retaining most of the value of the structure. And that is exactly how we proceeded.

Natural forms and garden views infuse the inside of Wellspring Medical Center for Extraordinary Living.

Natural forms and garden views infuse the inside of Wellspring Medical Center for Extraordinary Living.

Upon further examination of the health system’s needs, a concept emerged to satisfy the desire to combine the doctors and ancillaries with wellness and community education. What resulted was Wellspring Medical Center for Extraordinary Living, a facility that holistically integrates clinical health care with healthy lifestyle promotion.

The program includes medical clinics (allopathic and naturopathic); physical therapy; a healthy-heart program; and healthy lifestyle programs, including a health-resource center, conference center, restaurant and health retail. To accommodate this program, we took advantage of the deep dimension of the building by planning around an oval connecting pathway, providing access to all services with a garden in the center and another alongside. To encourage “mall walkers” to visit the center, the oval path is exactly 1/16 mile so they can measure their walking routines. This had another advantage: Over time, as services change, the building’s spaces can be remodeled from the perimeter, so the central oval corridor is never under construction.

Research shows that healing and attitude are enhanced by closer contact with nature. The design response embraces the facility’s unique combination of services by creating an empowering oasis of natural forms and materials in an uplifting, calming and lifegiving setting. The two large internal garden courts bring nature into the middle. Water features provide auditory allusions to natural brooks. Natural materials—stone, bamboo and wood ceilings—evoke a response to nature throughout. The building’s high roof structure (17 to 20 feet) is an advantage: We painted the structure black and suspended ceilings selectively to provide focal points while preserving the open feel.

PHOTOS, UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED: Michael Mathers

About the Author

Tom Clark, FAIA, EDAC, and Dale Anderson, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, EDAC
Tom Clark, FAIA, EDAC, is founding principal of Clark/Kjos Architects, a full-service architecture, interior design and planning firm with offices in Seattle and Portland, Ore. Dale Anderson, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, EDAC, is principal of Clark/Kjos Architects.

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