In a given project, architects can steward human behavior and interaction, designing plans with the intention of influencing occupant activities. With the advent of simulation technologies—which have been integrated into various design processes, such as energy modeling—designers can predict how users will interact with completed projects and systems, offering a glimpse into possible outcomes. At the 24,000-square-foot Northstar Medical Campus, located in the Dallas suburb of North Richland Hills, Texas, Iman Ansari, Assoc. AIA, and Marta Nowak, AIA, founding principals of the Los Angeles– and Columbus, Ohio–based firm An.Onymous, are using simulation to predict human movement in a clinic for Northstar Dermatology. In doing so, An.Onymous has situated the individual occupant, and the multitudes of individuals surrounding them, as central to the strategy of the floor plan and formal language of the 9,000-square-foot project.
The campus comprises three buildings centered around a courtyard. The first building, which was completed in 2022, is defined by a graphic, monochromatic façade of slender tiling and houses a clinic for the project’s namesake dermatology clinic. According to Ansari and Nowak, the client’s primary concern for the design was circulation. "Like most medical practices nowadays, Northstar Dermatology is a very fast-paced office that operates like clockwork, requiring a staff of 25 doctors, nurses, and administrators to really work in sync … every movement is critical to the operation of the clinic,” Nowak says. Even the width of a hallway, the location of the check-out counters, or the height of the gloves dispensers, Ansari adds, could have reverberating effects: “Any wasted motion would mean a visit might take longer than needed, therefore reducing the efficiency and productivity of the whole practice.”
The client’s need for optimized circulation afforded Nowak and Ansari an opportunity to experiment with simulation modeling, “but before that, we needed data,” Nowak says. The team conducted extensive observations of the practice’s daily operation, providing the necessary data parameters for the simulation to run properly: “It was a whole chain of reactions … a behavioral study of really understanding what must happen in the physical space, and understanding how the software operates in the digital space,” Nowak explains. Using tools such as Pedestrian Dynamics and AnyLogic, the design team simulated the paths of possible medical office users. Through this data-driven simulation process, the team identified bottlenecks and inefficiencies in plan iterations, optimizing them accordingly. The clinic's dual nurses stations served as one example: In many clinics, nurses stations act as a centralized hub. In this large clinic, however, "as the number of occupants increases, the distance they must travel increases,” Ansari says. “[The space] becomes like a running track, then it becomes inefficient,” Nowak adds. To remedy this, the team adopted this idea of “splitting the office in two,” as Nowak describes it, with each side containing its own nurses’ station and associated clinic amenities to spread the load of patients.
An.Onymous sited these offices in two wings positioned slightly off axis from each other as an abstraction of a typical plan grid, which is seen in an animation depicting the history of the plan. As the animation progresses, the grid is broken and chamfered to allow the simulated bodies the path of least resistance within the space. In addition to the obvious efficiency benefits, simulation also calls attention to what isn’t built. Ansari and Nowak embrace this discrepancy by activating a visual (unrealized) architecture within the (realized) physical space. The square nurses station of the original plan is reflected as the vinyl flooring, which also serves as a demarcation of employee (light) and patient (dark) spaces, creating this “alternate visual version of the project … and [demonstrating] this mismatch between reality and representation,” Ansari says. At the end of the animation, the floor plan fades to reveal the standalone paths of the simulated bodies: “We considered the building and the physical space mainly as a tool to generate that interaction at the end,” Ansari adds.
While the original intent of the simulation was to optimize a floor plan for a dermatologist’s office, the team at An.Onymous was also able to use this tool as a means of challenging the architect’s role. Simulation exposes the idealized building, which the architect imagines, and “the reality that’s on the ground. For us, architecture, and this project in particular, always exist in this mismatch,” Nowak says. However, the soul of the Northstar Medical Campus’ concept is human behavior and the means in which these simulation tools allow for a more individual-focused design process. As Nowak puts it, “all of these tools, materials, representations, visualizations … all of these are ways that architecture can actually create a program of action and ultimately inform and hopefully improve the human experience in the built environment."
Project: Northstar Dermatology Clinic, North Richland Hills, Texas
Architect: An.Onymous, Los Angeles and Columbus, Ohio
Architect of Record: Guide Architecture
Initial schematic and design development: An.Onymous in collaboration with Spinagu
Landscape Architect: Belle Firma
Structural Engineer: Armstrong Douglass
MEP Engineering: Choice Engineering
Civil Engineering: Clay Moore Engineering
General Contractor: Z Constructors
Millwork: Central Millwork
Brick: Acme Brick
In 2019, initial schematic and design development was completed by AN.ONYMOUS in collaboration with Spinagu.
This article has been updated.