With a focus on health care and higher education, Nicole Rogers of SMRT Architects and Engineers designs complex buildings that service hundreds of people daily. These projects must respond to the diverse needs of a wide range of occupants. “With projects of this size, cost, and potential impact, creating a positive user experience is my highest priority,” she says. “Making that space physically and emotionally accessible to a large cross section of people is the challenge. Doctors and patients will have very different ideas about what makes a building successful. The same is true for teachers and students.” MH+D asks Rogers to tell us more.
Q. How do you differentiate design for multiple users?
A. With so many potential users, you might think the final design needs to be homogenous. Instead, the most successful design involves a multilayered approach, addressing user needs on different levels. The goal is a solution that serves the building’s basic needs while creating a positive experience for the inhabitants through personal encounters. The first and most obvious level is usability and accessibility. A clear, functional program that achieves the client’s vision is fundamental to a successful building. We engage the client through conversations, visioning and facilitation strategies, and applying principles of evidence-based design. A space can be beautiful, but unless it serves its purpose, it is a failure.
The next most important layer is designing for personal impact—creating a way for users to connect positively with a building beyond its basic function. On a small scale, this is relatively easy. A house is inherently personal, filled with possessions and memories. Achieving this for large- scale projects is more challenging. I’ve found success by looking to the surrounding community’s vernacular, history, and style for inspiration that positively resonates with Mainers. Those positive associations are powerful. For example, visiting a hospital can provoke negativity and fear, but if you design opportunities for personal encounters that trigger favorable emotions (referred to as “positive distractions”), you can create a more positive user experience and even aid with the healing process.
Q. Where have you recently applied this approach?
A. I am working with the Passa- maquoddy Nation to design a new school in Perry. From the beginning, we quickly learned that this will be more than a typical school: it will really be the heart of their community. The building will host gatherings, sports activities, and cultural events, so we needed a design that is responsive to all of those needs. The solution is all about flexibility. Just one of the ways we’re accomplishing that is through the use of large sliding glass doors. When they’re closed, they separate the dining room from an adjacent lobby. When the doors are open, the two smaller spaces are combined into one that can easily accommodate larger events.
Q. What is the positive personal association here?
A. The Passamaquoddys have a deep- rooted connection to nature that reaches back thousands of years. Maintaining and passing along that culture is very important to them. Incorporating design elements with historical and cultural references creates opportunities for personal interactions between school staff and students, as well as between tribal elders and younger generations.
The Passamaquoddys are one of four nations known as the “People of the Dawnland.” Sun, light, and eastern orientation hold great significance in their culture. To honor this, we designed the south-facing entrance as a full glass façade, bringing in abundant natural light. The roof slopes upward, supported by a timber frame structure that references their culture’s symbol for welcome—open arms reaching up to the sky. A small meditation garden near the entrance is surrounded by birch trees and carved petroglyphs, providing a space for private reflection and exploration. The large, open lobby is framed in wood and supported in the center with a large ash tree. This space pays homage to traditional huts and teepees. Full-height windows line the back wall, establishing a direct visual connection to the east and the ocean beyond.