Dr. Jon Hallberg discusses the expansion of the M Physicians Mill City Clinic and its focus on welcome, light, and art—and something called joy in practice

Interview by Sheri Hansen

In 2011, Architecture MN visited the art- and light-filled Mill City Clinic in Minneapolis’ historic Mill District to interview Dr. Jon Hallberg, the clinic’s medical director, on the health benefits of quality design. Eight years later, healthcare delivery has continued to evolve, the neighborhood is booming with redevelopment, and the clinic itself has doubled in size, thanks to a recent expansion designed by Studio BV. With all these changes, we made a return visit. Our Sheri Hansen sat down with Hallberg for a wide-ranging conversation on the insights and aspirations that went into the making of the expansion.

What were some lessons that you learned from the design of the original clinic?

I loved almost everything about the clinic we operated for the first 10 years. The first meetings we had with the Perkins and Will team [the designers of the original clinic] felt like a mind meld. We created a dream clinic that I didn’t even know could exist. We played with height, with geometry. It was really fresh and modern. We made real art a part of it from the beginning.

I love the way that the light pours in and that, in this technological age, we have exam rooms designed to encourage conversation. When we created the visual strategy for the lobby, we were thinking it should feel like a hotel-lobby-meets-bookstore-meets-art-gallery rather than have a classic clinic look.

The original clinic had four exam rooms, one consultation room, a flexible room, and a lab space for patient care. But it lacked a breakroom, ample space for nursing staff and clinicians, and an actual office for our clinic manager. We always had 8,000 square feet available to us, but we only used 4,000 at the outset. We were ready to build the clinic that was meant to be—this time with Studio BV—but we wanted to hold on to all the great design from the original footprint.

What elements of the design are on-trend in healthcare?

Several years ago, a group looked at high-performing primary-care practices from across the U.S. to determine what makes them successful and highly satisfying places to work for both staff and clinicians. The resulting report, titled In Search of Joy in Practice, highlighted innovations that make the work of primary care more fulfilling. Many of the design elements in the Mill City Clinic fall into the “joy in practice” model.

When we opened the clinic in 2008, a computer in every room was standard. We designed the computer desk to come out at a 45-degree angle from the wall, which is not commonly done. Technology is part of the patient conversation in the exam room, but it doesn’t come between the clinician and the patient.

Colocation was already established in our clinic, too; we expanded on that as we expanded the clinic. Our lead nurse is embedded with clinicians so we can talk in real time. We still need to sign things. We still need to look over someone’s shoulder to help solve patient-related issues. It’s not rocket science, but you must design with the idea that we’re going to be sitting side by side.

Every clinician in this clinic has a personal cubicle space. I think it’s a mistake to assume that providers who are dealing with life-and-death issues don’t need a regular space. To have a dedicated spot where you can keep a photograph of a loved one or something on the wall means something.

We can also go into our new break room, which has two little nooks for study. Personal and quiet spaces help prevent burnout by meeting the staff’s need for recharging and privacy. If we’re not feeling recharged, it’s really hard to give, which our profession demands.

And of course just having a beautiful place to work lifts morale. The clinic is filled with light and art, and that makes it a whole lot easier to feel good about the work we do, the people we see, and even one another.

Making people feel welcome was a very important consideration in the original clinic, and it’s still emphasized. Why is welcome so important?

It’s possible that people are accessing medical care for very unthreatening reasons. But everything from having blood drawn to receiving an immunization to having a symptom that you’re worried about—or having a loved one with a health concern—has the potential to make coming to the clinic a scary, stressful experience. The more the clinic can be beautiful and welcoming and filled with light, art, and music, the lower the threshold is for coming in the door.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are part of the vernacular of the space. When people come in, they see words of welcome in many languages. We’ve got Chinese, Spanish, English, Hmong, French, Somali, and Norwegian on the wall that all say, “You are welcome here.” And they’re all the same size; the English isn’t in the middle, in larger type.

Our bathroom signs show a toilet and use the word restroom. Bathroom signs can be a controversial topic, but we dealt with it in an uncontroversial way by making it about function. The welcome people find in our clinic comes from how it looks, and our people, but it also comes from subtle design elements like this throughout the space.

The neighborhood has grown up around you. How did that impact the design for the expansion?

In our first buildout of the clinic, we had an empty 4,000-square-foot room in the back that allowed us to do all kinds of things that engaged the neighborhood. We turned it into an art gallery with live music. We had a first read-through of a play. We had the dress rehearsal for a Ten Thousand Things Theater production. The Guthrie used it for extra rehearsal space.  Perhaps my favorite use of the space was for Hippocrates Cafe, a show I created in 2009 and continue to moderate that combines the performing arts and medicine.

Knowing that we were going to lose that space with the expansion, we designed the conference room in the update to be roughly the size of a Parisian salon. It allows us to continue to bring the community into the clinic. I’m on the board of Ten Thousand Things, and we have our bimonthly meetings here. We’ve had University of Minnesota colleagues request this space for meetings and retreats.

The conference room also has a very practical use for patients. We can have 12 to 15 people come in and learn about diabetes collectively. We can have prenatal classes here and end-of-life decision-making classes to help people fill out their advance directives. The conference room allows us to stay connected to the community and even has the potential to generate revenue.

For all these uses, we needed a space with maximum flexibility. The tables fold and are on wheels, so they can be rolled out. When we have gallery receptions for local artists, the conference room is a place where guests can get a beverage, meet the artists, and then go out in the lobby to look at the art.

We also refurnished the lobby. The new pieces are easy to clean, which is a patient-care issue, but they’re also lighter so we can move them more easily for events. The lobby is now highly adaptable to allow us to balance patient care with our connection to the community.

How was your experience working with Betsy Vohs and the Studio BV team?

I’m the medical director of the clinic, but I also feel responsible for its future on a broader level. So I was really nervous about the changes we were planning. I worried that my mind-meld with Perkins and Will on the original clinic had been my one shot at having a lightning-strike experience as the client of an architecture firm.
But lightning struck twice in an amazing way. Betsy was a great listener; she listened to everyone in the clinic, including our medical assistants and lab staff, and collaborated with us to create the design. She just got the essence of this clinic, which is the focus on providing great clinical care against a backdrop of light, art, and community. It was a dream collaboration. She was creative with cross-purposing of new spaces, addressing our practical needs, and helping us design the clinic we had always been dreaming of.
The expanded clinic embodies our vision beautifully. One of the things I love about working with designers is that, even when I can’t exactly articulate the vision, they hear what I’m trying to say and make it real in an amazing way. We have light, we have art, and we have welcome. We have it all. Working with the architects and designers at Studio BV helped us accomplish that.