Campus Planning, Technical Excellence, and the Future of Healthcare Design and Architecture: Meet Thomas Yang AIA

Thomas Yang AIA, Design Principal at Jensen Partners, brings decades of experience to technical and agency activities, working closely with owners to understand their operational vision and opportunities present in campus land use and building inventory. He is an expert in campus planning, focusing on place creation, imageability, clear wayfinding, and municipal entitlements. We sat down with Tom to learn more about innovation in campus planning, technical and architectural in excellence, and the future model of healthcare planning. Tom holds a Master of Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and a B.A. in Architecture from Yale University.

Tom, you have been an integral part of the Jensen Partners team since the firm’s inception. What brought you to the firm?

Sarah Jensen and I started working at UCLA almost at the same time in 1990, so our work together has existed since. After about a dozen years at UCLA, she went to work at Amgen, and I followed her there. When she started Jensen Partners in 2002, I was employee number three. In our previous work, we were leading large-scale, several billion dollars of planning, design and construction projects in an office of 120+ people. That kind of resource is rarely available in most organizations, so we decided to bring that expertise to a wider range of clients. One of the ways I describe what we do here at Jensen Partners is that we’re a project administration team well-versed in all of the latest trends in healthcare, and we bring our technical and operational competence into the room for organizations that don’t have that kind of knowledge ready and waiting.

Fascinating. How did you decide to work in architecture?

I’ve thought about this a lot recently, since I’ve been an architect for a while now: I graduated from architecture school in 1984. First, I love to draw, and that was the start for me. I’ve always been a visual person and had a strong awareness of where people gather. I remember when the city of Los Angeles changed its zoning to allow restaurants to put tables and chairs out on the sidewalk; overnight, the city’s culture changed completely. Placemaking and the conversation around spaces of health and healing in society are what make architecture special. I’ve long been passionate about the social effects of architecture and also fancy myself an aesthetic person who likes beautiful structures, so this work followed naturally.

How do design and visuality come into play with campus planning?

This is a central question, and with our clients we’re working in the most complex building type that I think exists. Unfortunately, so many hospitals are defeated by the complexity. There are technical, programmatic, leadership, and funding complexities, as well as design complexities. Part of the benefit of my career’s foundation is it having been at a world class hospital university campus, and that the institution did not want to let the hospital be a mundane building. UCLA wanted to represent its image as a world class academic institution. Together, we changed the paradigm and brought in leading architects such as I.M. Pei and Robert Am Stern, among others.

These internationally renowned designers created a vision that changed the design experience for all who utilize the hospital. For example, the UCLA hospital is built around a metaphor of a stem with four leaves on it, which guides the floor plan, allowing light to penetrate deep into the heart of the hospital. This hadn’t happened before, as most hospitals were and continue to be dark and disorienting. We together witnessed one example of how design vision can recast the paradigm of what a hospital can be.

I find that at Jensen Partners, we are uniquely positioned to continue adding to paradigm shifts, and we are tracking innovation closely. Being the owners’ representatives has allowed us to set the bar high, listen more carefully to our clients about what the vision of their leaders is instead of letting a mundane avalanche of details to crush the vision. We have a very high level of confidence about the outcomes. The projects that we’ve done have been among the best in our field.

What, in your view, contributes to this unique approach of Jensen Partners?

First, we are very respectful of the facts. Jensen Partners is populated with very intelligent people who are deeply curious and love solving puzzles.There are a lot of planning firms that crunch numbers and come up with abstract models without respecting reality, which includes dealing with the combination of operational and physical plant infrastructure. These are the elements that come together to make a health care facility really work. There are a lot of buildings that are not really appropriate for the future of healthcare, and we need to look carefully and frankly at the value of such buildings. We have unique, proprietary benchmarks that evaluate the physical experiences of employees and patients at a hospital. We translate these into actionable plans that help our clients make decisions about their course of action.

Thank you. How would you describe the role of a Design Principal to a young architect who’s looking to work in healthcare?

I am responsible for the outside world-in view of our master planning endeavors, and other leaders in our team are responsible for the inside-out. For example, I look at the physical infrastructure of the building. I’ll look at obsolescence. I’ll look at a lot of the nitty gritty aspects of design, but even more importantly, I look at the place, the image, what the architectural potential of the campus is, and how people can feel like they are entering a gracious, hi-tech, respectful, and welcoming institution. Sadly, what a lot of people experience in a hospital is the feeling of being overcome with confusion or fear, and it’s our job to change that to an experience of healing from the first moment.

That’s amazing and must be personally gratifying contributing to collective well being in that way. How do you see the role of design and architecture in light of the pandemic?

In many sectors of society, as especially in healthcare, there’s been a required 10 year jump into the future. Thankfully, I think healthcare has been ready and has responded well to the pandemic. We had the video tools to allow people to interact with their health care providers without leaving their homes.We’ve been developing robotic surgery. Suddenly, they have become absolutely necessary instead of a nice to have.

In terms of the larger picture of medicine, preventative health and therapeutic health became even more crucial. It’s often better for the patient to go home, and it often makes more financial sense for institutions. As a result, hospital buildings themselves are changing into places where the people who are there are very sick or severely injured. And so buildings have to work twice as hard technologically. While buildings are becoming more compact, the technology, air conditioning systems, and various other equipment are zooming ahead. When planning for a hospital, you have to plan a building to be able to be something entirely different 10 years from today. As the buildings themselves are becoming much more technologically interesting, it makes for an exciting architectural challenge to solve.

Very interesting shifts to watch for. Lastly, it is very apparent how much you love your work, and we’re curious to learn what drives that.

Actually, there are three aspects of my job that I like the most. One of them is working with people, and particularly working with the young staff in our office, watching their careers grow, and being a mentor. The second aspect is that I get to be in the room as the technical, architectural side of the equation while interacting with physician leaders about the future of clinical care. It’s a privilege to be a fly on the wall and to listen to the dreams and visions of this very important humanistic and futuristic endeavor called healthcare. People are very inspiring and inspired to improve well being, and being part of hospitals’ future plans aligns perfectly with architecture, which has always been an optimistic endeavor. The third aspect is that I really like to draw. Time I can spend drawing freehand or in SketchUp, modeling a campus, thinking about its urbanistic potential, architectural potential, or landscape design is when I feel I’m contributing to the human condition and expressing myself as an artist as well.

Thank you, Tom, for your decades of work to improve healthcare through architecture and design. We look forward to continuing the conversation with you and your team.