2024 PDC Summit Student Challenge Tackles Post-COVID Community Health Needs with Innovative Office Conversions



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Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a notable shift in the workplace environment, leading to a surplus of empty office spaces in urban centers such as downtown San Diego. This shift has prompted a trend towards converting commercial spaces into residential areas. According to the 2023-2024 U.S. News and World Report, San Diego is the most expensive city in the United States, with 11.6% of the population residing in poverty. These challenges have resulted in a ripple effect, contributing to disparities in healthcare access. Factors such as limited resources, a lack of trust, insufficient education, and financial support have all played a role in exacerbating the issue.

This topic served as the basis for this year’s student design challenge at the ASHE PDC Summit in San Diego, California. The Prompt– design a carbon neutral tenant improvement of a vacant downtown commercial space into an express health care facility that meets the needs of a diverse and dense population and make it resilient to future threats. Student teams representing architecture, engineering, construction management, and nursing majors from the University of Florida, Clemson University, Milwaukee School of Engineering, University of Washington, and Montana State University joined SmithGroup in San Diego to address the problem – Design a Better Future.

Four multi-disciplinary teams of five were selected by a random draw and given the design problem. “The most challenging aspect of the competition is having students from different universities collaborate without knowing each other on a very complex healthcare program,” says Gabe Auffant, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD +C, Student Challenge Chair and Client Relationship Leader at RLF. Each team has less than 48 hours to develop a solution that includes design and architectural requirements, engineering systems and infrastructure, and a construction plan and budget. Advisors and mentors working in the healthcare design space provide feedback and insight to teams throughout the competition. The annual two-day event stimulates critical inquiry, creative ideas, and multi-disciplinary interaction between students and design professionals.

In his first year as Chair, Gabe and his Co-Chair Leah Meer assembled a team of professionals representing multiple organizations to develop, support, and host this year’s challenge over the past six months. “There were a lot of challenges while we developed the prompt and assembled the teams before the students even arrived,” Gabe remarked. “Challenges presented themselves in having universities accept the invitation in the first place, getting everyone lined up, finding a host firm, a conference location, and all of the logistics of getting everything prepared before everyone’s arrival,” he added.

When asked, what do you think the students get out of it? Gabe comically responded, “Besides, no sleep?” He added, “What I find the students find most valuable from the competition is having the opportunity to collaborate with like-minded individuals in different professions. Students find they know more than they think, and they bring a lot of value to each one of their teams individually. The architects bring something to the table; the engineers, nursing students, and construction managers all have specific knowledge, and together, they create these wonderful projects.”

After 48 hours, each team must present their solution to a jury represented by healthcare industry leaders, and the jury selects one team as the winner. The first and second-place teams get the opportunity to present their solutions at the PDC Summit Conference. “In my opinion, the student challenge is about collaboration and process, “remarked Auffant. “Yes, it is a design competition, and a winner is chosen, but that is more about motivation than substance. The real challenge is learning the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration and the need to develop consensus amongst multi-disciplinary teams. Our job is to guide the students and encourage an inclusive process,” he added.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the AIA Academy of Architecture for Health (AAH) present the annual competition. The American Society of Health Care Engineering (ASHE), the Nursing Institute for Healthcare Design (NIHD), and McCarthy Building Companies sponsored the 2024 Student Challenge.