How to Design a $5 Million Planned Parenthood Clinic

We talked to the architect behind the award-winning clinic to find out how to balance patients' comfort with the need for a metal detector and bulletproof windows.

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Sep 1 2016, 8:00pm

All Photos by Michael Moran

The first step in opening a Planned Parenthood clinic in Queens, New York, the Diane L. Max Health Center, was getting the community onboard. It was difficult—perhaps unsurprisingly, in a political climate that is increasingly hostile to women's reproductive rights—to find a landlord who would rent space to the healthcare provider. "People would say that they didn't want us in their building. They were concerned that there would be a public outcry," Joan Malin, the CEO of Planned Parenthood New York City, told me over the phone.

But the locals largely championed the health organization coming there, especially its librarians. "Three or four years ago we started looking into areas [in New York] where we could expand. We were not in Queens, but we had roughly 5,000 patients a year from Queens," Malin said. "We reached out to healthcare and community organizations in the borough and they said, 'Of course, you've got to be here.' The library, in particular, wanted training for their librarians because they got questions from young people all the time about their sexuality and where they could go for services."

Read more: Rebuilding a Planned Parenthood After a Domestic Attack

After getting that feedback and finding a plot in Long Island City that welcomed the building of a women's health clinic—an old lumber yard—Planned Parenthood was able to open up a thoroughly modern healthcare facility in September 2015: one with wide windows that face a lush tree and a quiet, residential street in the borough. Providing a full range of reproductive services, it is both minimalist and warm; a place that you would want to go, and perhaps wouldn't even mind waiting in. For that very reason, it won the American Institute of Architects' National Healthcare Design Award earlier this month.

"The scale and contextual response of this clearly executed project is commendable," Douglas Hocking, the award's jury chair, said in an email statement. "The articulation of the façade maximizing view of the tree canopy, thoughtful use of color and details, furniture selection and integration of graphics are well orchestrated. For a modest $5 million budget, the project achieved a high level of consistency and sophistication."

Its architect, Stephen Yablon, made use of color to achieve this inviting effect, both inside and out. "[Planed Parenthood] wanted to communicate that they were providing state of the art care for anyone," Yablon explained to me over the phone. "I think it kind of bears out in how sleek it looks. They wanted to provide a great patient experience."

He emphasized the importance of making a space for care that doesn't look depressing: "We wanted to get across that you should have control over [your reproductive health] and there's respect for anybody's decision on what to do. So it's not a somber environment. [It implies] when you're ready to have sex or when you're ready to have a family, it'll be good."

The bright walls, painted in shades green and blue, and the colored lighting that lines the halls also solved one of the clinic's pressing issues during its development: The Planned Parenthood needed to be able to serve the incredibly diverse population of Queens. "There's over a hundred languages spoken [in Queens]. It's one of the most diverse areas in the world. So making it very welcoming to that diverse of a population was a central concern of theirs from the beginning," Yablon said.

In particular, finding a way to make sure everyone could feel like they had access to the clinic's high standard of care posed a challenge: "It was hard because you can't have all of your signage in a hundred different languages—you wouldn't have room."

So they decided to adopt color as a universal language and as a guide to the building. "The color is very rigorously applied in the space as almost an orientation system. There are blue walls and green walls and lighting in the corridors: one is pink, another one is yellow, and another is orange. So somebody could direct a patient to go to the orange and pink corridor or look at the green wall in the end. They wouldn't have to use words."

We wanted to get across that you should have control over [your reproductive health].

When thinking about designing a reproductive health center in 2016, safety concerns are—somewhat unfortunately—another major concern. There could be protestors on any given day, shouting and handing out pamphlets, accosting patients as they try to make their way to the clinic entrance, or plotting something much worse.

"There is a security lock when you come in, a bulletproof security desk, and a metal detector. So you can't enter the clinic without going through that," Yablon pointed out. "You'll also notice there's an unusual amount of glass on the front, but that glass is all blast resistant, shatter resistant, and bulletproof." There's also a film over the windows so that light can come in through the glass but the privacy of the patients is protected.

"We wanted to make sure the place was secure as possible," Malin added.

In this way, the center negotiates a line between providing adequate security measures and affirming comfort, but as both Yablon and Planned Parenthood pointed out to me, those things are often synonymous for patients.

"I think it makes people feel assured that it is a safe facility when they come in and see the metal detector. We weren't trying to hide it," Yablon said. "On the other hand, it's a very friendly entrance. It doesn't feel like you're entering Fort Knox. The challenge was to make that stuff apparent—to make it feel like it is safe—but at the same time to make it feel welcoming and cheerful. I think we achieved that."