Getting Started: Inside the Design Process of a Startup Medical School

By: Mario Cipresso


Approach to new CUSM School of Medicine from Arrowhead Regional Medical Center

With the programming and schematic design of the California University of Science and Medicine (CUSM), CO Architects welcomed the opportunity to develop a new, privately funded, non-profit medical school with our client. The School of Medicine (SOM) represents the first of many structures planned for a new medical and research campus in Colton, CA, working cooperatively with the adjacent Arrowhead Regional Medical Center.  The selected site provided the building direct views from the highly trafficked Interstate 10 to the south, offering opportunities to utilize the building as a billboard for the new campus.  As the initial, speculative facility of this new institution, the SOM was to represent the aspirations the client had for the future of the University, while addressing a constrained construction budget that equaled approximately 85% of the average budget typical for this building type.  

The process commenced with a collaborative programming exercise aimed at identifying the critical needs of the new SOM that would ensure accreditation would be obtainable while simultaneously meeting the specificities of the projected curriculum. CO’s extensive experience in the planning and design of medical schools contributed immensely to this discussion through the benchmarking of previously executed projects as a comparative tool. These benchmarks immediately made apparent the types and sizes of the required spaces for a particular class size. The design process essentially began here with some creative decision-making that distilled the program down to its essentials. The final program includes two large learning studios (whose flat, flexible floors possess the ability to be joined into one large lecture space), classrooms, research laboratories, study spaces, gross anatomy, simulation space, and administration.

The programming phase was followed by an in-house design charrette with all members of the design team (including external consultants). The session was immensely useful in sharing our understanding of the project with the entire consultant team and learning about the opportunities or concerns they may have identified. A thorough discussion led to drawing and writing that begins to speak to potential directions the project can take in terms of architecture, building systems, structure, sustainability, and more. In the weeks following, we would develop three different schemes, each representing alternative strategies for articulating an architectural vision for CUSM.

The direction ultimately favored by our team and the client was an approach that utilized a central courtyard with two flanking wings connected by the bridging of the public spaces. The courtyard offered collective public space that offset the need for a large event space within the building, which would have been a costly addition to the budget. It was further envisioned as a dual-use outdoor teaching environment that could host special events, such as Match Day and the School’s White Coat ceremony.


View upon entry to courtyard of School of Medicine.

Additionally, the agreed-upon scheme embodied several other critical characteristics that achieved some of the client’s initial goals for the project. The position of the building on the site provided a direct visual and physical connection to the Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, acting as a gateway to the new campus. The building form responds to the desire for visibility from the interstate by rising up at the south, a strategy that complemented the orientation of the building by providing increased shading of the exterior courtyard space.

C04-Scheme Final_DH

Physical Model of Final Schematic Design.

C08-Scheme BoxCt_DH

Physical Model of 2nd Courtyard Study.

C09-Scheme Uct_DH

Physical Model of 1st Courtyard Study.

Internally, the emphasis is on movement as a means of experiencing the building and the dispersed social spaces. A specific, choreographed circulation sequence begins as you enter the courtyard under the threshold of the reading stair above. One continues to move into the building and ascend an open stair to the second level, which further connects to the reading stair and social space at the second-floor bridge. Moving up the open stair to the third floor, the path continues along the façade at the courtyard where it expands into another social bridge connecting back to the north wing. The aim here is to create a healthy building environment that prioritizes the real physical movement of its occupants and increases opportunities for informal interactions between students and faculty.


Interior view of reading stair and social space on bridge over entry to courtyard.


Ground Level Plan.


Second Level Plan.


Third Level Plan.

C10-Scheme L_DH

Physical Model of “L” Scheme with Open Courtyard.

C11-Scheme Chamb_DH

Physical Model of Internal Atrium Study.

C12-Scheme Village_DH

Physical Model of Rooftop Public Space Study.

CO Architects was engaged for programming and schematic design services for the new School of Medicine at the California University of Science and Medicine in Colton, CA.

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