Designing for the Future

Written by Nate Hendley

Steffian Bradley Architects (SBA) creates environments that will enhance people’s lives – and remain relevant years down the road. By embracing evidence-based design and thinking two steps ahead, the award-winning firm creates spaces that will serve their purpose today as well as tomorrow.
“Designing for the future is an extraordinarily important part of our work,” says CEO Kurt Rockstroh. “In healthcare, long term care, science and technology – industries that we are working in – we have to look at how clients are going to be functioning and operating in the future. If we design healthcare facilities based on what they have been doing over the last five or ten years, when it opens it would be obsolete. We are designing for 2025 not for 2016.”

While the team is focused on the future, the firm itself has a long history stretching all the way back to 1932. “The first 60 years we were a boutique firm in Boston, really focused on New England and mainly healthcare and housing,” Mr. Rockstroh explains. Over the last quarter century, SBA has increased its scope of work to include academic, corporate/commercial, healthcare, life sciences, residential, and urban design markets, as well as launching additional offices in New England, the United Kingdom, China, and Canada. “Over the last 25 years we have been focusing on becoming a global firm. There has been a serious focus on diversity of our people, our projects, and the places we work.”

Even though the firm has grown and evolved, the team has managed to retain a significant number of clients. “We have longstanding client relationships,” says Kirsten Waltz, President of U.S. Operations. Mr. Rockstroh adds, “I have been here at SBA for 39 years, and I have clients that I have been working with every day since the first day I joined the firm. We have clients who we have done 400 projects for over the last 20 years.”

SBA’s international expansion has increased the team’s scope of expertise and encouraged collaboration. “We have folks from over 25 countries working at SBA who are trained around the world, and that diversity of knowledge and training really enriches us all,” Mr. Rockstroh points out. “Projects are delivered in very different ways around the world, and we have worked in every delivery method that there is. There are similarities with design processes, but the focus and the design emphasis in different countries really varies.”

For example, healthcare design in the United Kingdom had stagnated since WWII, and SBA introduced new ideas and perspectives to the market. At the same time, the United States had fallen far behind the United Kingdom in sustainable design. “Almost immediately after we started working in the UK, we were importing sustainable design knowledge from the UK to the US,” Mr. Rockstroh recalls. “We might have been 30 years ahead of them in healthcare, but they were 15 or 20 years ahead of us in sustainable design and energy management. So we got a lot of great ideas about sustainable design that we brought back to the States very early and were implementing on our projects before sustainability was popular in the United States.”

SBA encourages employees to spend time in an overseas office in order to keep this collaboration going. “We brought [employees] over here to work for a few months on projects so that we could have a standard that goes back and forth between the firms,” says Ms. Waltz. “And we have US employees over in the UK right now, learning. I think it is important to have that informational flow. When you are bringing people together who have trained and worked in different places, a lot of great ideas are generated that really benefit our clients and our projects.”

“There is a component to each project that is very unique,” Mr. Rockstroh says of the company’s diverse portfolio. “No two projects are the same. Every project is very, very different. Everything is a one-off.”

To create the Children’s Specialty Center for Baystate Health in Springfield, Massachusetts, the team worked with former Disney imagineers to design a whimsical, interactive healthcare environment ideal for children. To make young patients comfortable and keep them engaged, the state of the art center features dedicated play spaces, colorful furnishings, and hands-on activities throughout the building, as well as a central “Playtrium” in the reception area. The new center brings what were four separate facilities together under one roof, making care more convenient and collaborative. “A family doesn’t have to bring a child to four appointments,” Ms. Waltz points out. “They are coming to one center for one appointment and receive comprehensive care. It is not only beneficial to the family, but also beneficial to the physicians. They can discuss the child’s needs as a team.”

Mattapan Community Health Center in Mattapan, Massachusetts acts as an “anchoring icon” and urban planning stimulus for Mattapan Square, the commercial center of a bustling Boston area neighborhood. As an important public amenity, the 50,000 square foot, four-story health center is “based on community,” says Ms. Waltz. The building is designed to reflect that connection, utilizing a transparent central volume that delivers views to and from the surrounding neighborhood.

The Sidney-Pacific Graduate Dormitory for Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston features a flexible design that is fashioned after market-rental housing, allowing the space to be converted into one and two bedroom apartments down the road. The design promotes community by creating a visual connection between stories in which natural light shines through clerestory windows and then diffuses through glass-block floors to the space below. Sustainable features include vertical and horizontal sunshading as well as operable windows. SBA, the owner, and the builder maintained a close relationship throughout the project, allowing the facility to be completed in a record 18 months and $1 million under budget.

The Guangzhou Children’s Activity Center was the first project that SBA carried out in China. The seven-story, 430,000 square foot facility acts as a symbolic gateway, marking the entrance to Zhujiang New Town, a modern metropolitan center. “The curved façade creates a functional, yet welcoming entrance to the plaza, juxtaposed with the linear layout of the classroom block that reflects the grid of the city,” SBA’s website explains. “These elements are elegantly linked by a conical glass entry lobby that anchors the two wings, and serves as a recognizable landmark within the city. Within the cone, an elegant circular steel staircase ascends seven-stories, suggesting a connection to the sky.”

The building’s design maximizes natural light and ventilation throughout, minimizing energy use. The design also appeals to a child’s curiosity and imagination. “Utilizing a design principle based on discovery, designers enhance building characters to play on the inquisitive nature of children,” the website explains. “Semitransparent screens create mystery, while glowing transparent columns invoke images of secrecy and creativity. Enticing volumes, shapes and recesses filled with light and color promote exploration and an active environment that stimulates imagination and a yearning for knowledge.”

Located in the United Kingdom, The Defense and National Rehabilitation Centre (DNRC) will be a next generation military rehabilitation facility. Currently in the construction document stage, the inpatient care center will be able to accommodate “any wounded warrior from every branch of service, no matter what their injury is,” Mr. Rockstroh explains. In addition to specific rehab facilities, the entire 42-acre campus will support recovery. “The campus itself is part of the rehab. We are actually using paving and ground cover that they would typically see when they go back to live in their communities.” From cobblestone to brick, patients will “learn how to navigate across what they are going to experience when they get home. It is extraordinarily unique.”

SBA is well placed to continue delivering one-of-a-kind projects that are designed for the future. “We just completed a five year strategic plan,” says Mr. Rockstroh. The plan extends opportunities to the entire team, ensuring that the company culture remains collaborative and open. “We are looking for different opportunities for staff – for everybody – to have a leadership role,” Ms. Waltz explains. “It is not a firm that is top-down.”

“It is an exciting time for SBA,” Mr. Rockstroh adds. “Over the next five to eight years, 70 percent of our stock is going to change hands. So there are fantastic opportunities for young design professionals who want to be in a leadership role here at SBA. We are looking for growth opportunities that give our staff the chance to grow and provide them with the management challenges and opportunities to work with new clients and projects.”

This focus will be balanced with retaining existing clients, ensuring that the team maintains longstanding relationships while simultaneously laying the groundwork for continued expansion and success.



From Here to There

Read Our Current Issue


Peace of Mind

March 2024

Making the Smart Grid Smarter

February 2024

Inclusive Workplaces

December 2023

More Past Editions

Cover Story

Featured Articles