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Washburn Center lets in natural light

January 21, 2015
by Julia Brown
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Located on the western edge of downtown Minneapolis, the Washburn Center for Children serves more than 2,700 children a year. Doubling its previous space, Washburn’s new 55,000-square-foot facility was designed to not only support the children receiving care, but also their family members and the clinicians and staff delivering that care, according to Chief Advancement Officer, Linda Smith.

“In the past six years, the number of children and families receiving mental health services and support from Washburn Center has doubled, and the former building was inadequate in both size and design,” she says. “The new facility was designed to support therapeutic work critical to healing, to foster children’s potential, and to be a warm, welcoming and calming place of respite.”

Fundraising for the $24.5 million project started in 2010 with construction beginning in September 2013. Construction came to a close in October 2014.

One goal, Smith says, was to create spaces that speak to children and families on an elemental level. For example, there is deliberate use of natural light, bright and soothing colors, sunny areas, and views of the outdoors and gardens throughout the facility to enhance the healing process. The features can be naturally calming.

Characterized by Smith as a sparkling, welcoming, glass-clad building, the steel and blue-tiled facility was designed by Mohammed Lawal, principal of Lawal Scott Erickson Architects, in association with architectural design firm DLR Group, both based in Minneapolis.

Richard Louv, child advocacy expert, journalist and author ofLast Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” was a design consultant on the project.  His insights as well as evidence-based research showing the importance of nature in children’s healthy mental and physical development were incorporated into the building’s design.

Both the indoor and outdoor spaces were thoughtfully intended to foster therapeutic healing for children, Smith says. Lawal allowed the landscape to influence the appearance of the building, which is slightly curved.
“The structure billows out toward the playground and gardens on the north side,” Smith says. “With Tom Oslund who designed the gardens, we’ve created a welcoming green space on this urban site that aligns closely with the architecture.”

Unique design elements
Washburn’s main entrance opens into a two-story, sun-lit atrium shaped like an abstract leaf.

“Curved glass walls embrace views to a storm water garden,” she says. “To the north and to the south there are a series of winding stairways with panoramic views of downtown Minneapolis. The windows are also etched with a leaflike pattern.”

Like the building itself, inside spaces include hallways with subtle curves as well. This is intentional, according to Smith, because straight hallways can often create a sense of foreboding. 

“When you’re walking down the curved hallways, you never see more than three doorways ahead of you and the space is much less intimidating, especially for children,” she says.

A secondary entrance can be reached from the parking lot through a green space featuring the gardens and playground, as well as a climbing hill.

“These entrances succeed in evoking the elements of nature that are intuitively calming,” Smith says. “We designed the entrances and lobbies so therapy and healing start when clients enter, and stay with them when they leave.”

The building has a narrow footprint and is 48 feet deep, specifically designed to ensure that enough natural light reaches the interior spaces throughout the day.

“Natural light is healing and thus valuable to our work here,” she says. “The structure was designed so every therapeutic room receives natural light, which creates a work environment supportive for staff as well.”

In addition to the spacious, naturally-lit lobby, Smith says the first floor features intake rooms as well as day treatment classrooms, where staff can address a continuum of needs for children with intense challenges who have likely been removed from school or day care settings.

A family-focused classroom also resides on the first floor, where staff can provide early interventions with children ranging from 33 months to five years old. Additionally, there’s a small gym or “gross motor area,” with padded walls for safety and high clerestory windows, where children can exercise with therapists and learn to play in healthy ways.

The second floor houses Washburn’s largest program, outpatient therapy, as well as spacious, windowed offices for therapists and case managers and offices for its crisis stabilization and intensive in-home services.

Administrative offices, a boardroom and other meeting rooms with views of downtown Minneapolis are on the third floor, as well as a staff lounge and kitchen area. Lounges and communal areas with windows were added to help ease the stress of staff members and also support colleague collaboration.

Also within the building is the new United Health Foundation Training Institute, a certification program backed with a $2.9 million grant. Smith says it aims to transform the training, practice and expertise of the local children’s mental health workforce.

“Through the institute, Washburn Center will create an innovative, replicable national model for integrating children’s evidence-based mental health practices to enhance the mental healthcare experience of children across the country,” Smith says.