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A New Home for Columbia Nursing

An Ultramodern Learning Environment for 21st Century Care


By Laura Raskin


Students who began classes this fall entered a new state-of-the-art facility, as Columbia University School of Nursing opened the doors of its new building and home. Completed as the school celebrates its 125th anniversary, the 68,000-square-foot building is designed to provide an ultramodern learning environment for today’s students.


The new structure is the result of a collaboration between two architecture firms, FXFOWLE in New York and CO Architects in Los Angeles. Combining forces and expertise, the designers conceived of a seven-story building with a glass facade and concrete frame, featuring exposed concrete columns that extend all the way up through the building from the ground floor, to create an image of brightness, height, and elegance.


The new site also gives Columbia Nursing a striking and welcoming presence in the Washington Heights community. Rectangular in shape, the building’s glazed walls alternate transparent panels with translucent ones, a technique that helps block glare from the sun and at the same time creates a beautiful reflecting pattern. The architects then gave the building a faceted, dynamic form. FXFOWLE’s project manager Michael Syracuse likens the sculpted effect to a Waterford crystal vase. The project team also thought of the building as a welcoming “lantern” in reference to Florence Nightingale as the “Lady of the Lamp.” It is an evocative image that aligns with Columbia Nursing’s mission of shaping nursing education, research, and practice around the world in an increasingly complex health care system, as well as its position as a community landmark.


When Columbia Nursing invited designs for its new facility from architecture firms in 2011, its request for proposal laid out the parameters: the new structure needed to be a three-story building on a 20,000-square-foot lot, leaving room for the potential that another facility could be built on top of it in later years. FXFOWLE and CO Architects broke the rules by changing the plan and designing a taller building that took up half the lot, still leaving room for future construction but giving the nursing school the iconic presence it deserved. “There was no question that the architects understood our vision from the start,” said Dean Bobbie Berkowitz, PhD. “The new building was designed with students in mind and the ways in which we thought students would use it,” said Dean Berkowitz. “It’s everything we hoped for.”


That vision is articulated right at ground level in the atrium, which has several different seating areas for students to socialize, meet, and study; a separate computer lab; and a cafe. A lime-green “ribbon” staircase that begins in the lobby creates a welcoming path that winds its way up through the seven floors.


The lobby also introduces the nursing school community and visitors to its history with a vintage photograph that stretches across an entire wall and can be seen from the outside. The image shows four public health nurses from the Class of 1961 walking on the very same streets in Washington Heights that nursing students now travel. In addition, it features the first in a series of thematic displays throughout the building that celebrate the school’s 125-year legacy with archival photographs and artifacts—all highlighting Columbia Nursing’s past, present, and future impact.


At the center of the building is the school’s two-story, 16,000-square-foot Helene Fuld Health Trust Simulation Center, which allows students to simulate clinical skills in a variety of health care settings using sophisticated technology in a safe educational environment. In a bold move, the school put the labs on display by surrounding them with glass walls, allowing anyone passing by to observe the action that takes place as students learn using manikins.


The simulation center’s high-tech audiovisual infrastructure means that students can be observed and recorded during their simulation classes, and then learn from watching themselves on video. Designated examination and debriefing rooms accommodate “standardized patients”—actors who help students role-play real-life scenarios and diagnoses. Students also practice on the school’s high-fidelity manikins that can breathe, get sick, die, give birth, react to medications, and be revived over and over again in the labor-anddelivery suite and operating room, which contain all of the equipment and technology one would find in a hospital. “We had several meetings with faculty to talk about what they needed, which even evolved over construction as staff and methodologies changed,” said Syracuse.


“Now, the simulation center captures the full spectrum of care that nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, and nurse midwives need to be prepared to deliver in the clinical setting,” said Dean Berkowitz. The simulation labs will also foster inter-professional education, providing a rich environment for research projects.


CO Architects brought its special expertise in health sciences education and team-based learning to the project, helping Columbia Nursing set the vision for the simulation center, design it, and bring it to life. “All of these spaces are highly mediated with technology. There’s a lot of audio and visual capture now,” said Jonathan Kanda, a principal at CO Architects. “The simulation center also gives Columbia Nursing spaces of different scales and allows them to be flexible in those spaces.”


On the upper floors, which are dedicated to work space for faculty and staff, the architects placed the offices around the perimeter of the building, giving them access to daylight and views, interior open spaces, and plenty of breakout areas for relaxing or meeting. Dean Berkowitz marveled at the ease with which teams can easily connect with each other in the new space. “This is a very modern building, built with the idea of more interaction. I just love that,” she said.


But perhaps the best part of the building is the events space with a prep kitchen on the seventh floor that allows the school to gather as an entire family, host conferences and seminars, and invite in the local community. Connected to the space is a 3,070-square-foot rooftop terrace with sweeping views that is open to students, faculty, and staff at all times. Designed by Mark K. Morrison Landscape Architecture, it features fragrant and medicinal plants in a nod to Manhattan’s native flora. There is even an area with reflexology pavers for the feet of tired nursing students.


Columbia Nursing officially dedicated its new building last June when over 250 faculty, staff, alumni, members of the Columbia University community, and the architects joined Dean Berkowitz; Lee Goldman, MD, dean of the Faculties of Health Sciences and chief executive of Columbia University Medical Center; and Columbia University president Lee C. Bollinger in the light-filled atrium to commemorate the occasion. “The school has always been a leader, in terms of nursing education and its commitment to its students and patients, but now we have the facility to match it,” said Midge Fleming, ’69, who took part in the ceremony to reflect on the significance of this milestone in the school’s history.


Students this fall entered not only a new building, but a new era in Columbia Nursing’s 125-year legacy: one in which its physical infrastructure reflects, floor by floor, its enduring mission and values, resulting in an environment that facilitates collaboration, interaction, and excellence for the 21st century and beyond.


*This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Columbia Nursing magazine.