Taking the Pulse of One Heart Care

For C& Partners Architects principal Aaron Cheng, the process of designing a healthcare space begins with timekeeping. The Toronto-based architect commits the most thought and rigor to offices, rooms, and hallways that are occupied for the longest periods, after which he works on interiors that are experienced more briefly.

“My job is to empower the healthcare providers, so they can care for their patients in turn,” Cheng says of prioritizing the spaces that doctors and nurses use intensively. He adds that this method dates to his student days, when he began investigating the relationship between building design and human movement.

That pursuit is clearly ongoing, because for the 20,000-square-foot One Heart Care Diagnostic and Cardiac Centre that C& Partners fashioned from the second floor of a Mississauga, Ontario, corporate office last year, Cheng lined the building perimeter in patient examination rooms and offices. “One doctor’s shift can last as long as 12 hours,” the architect explains. “Compared to the average 15 minutes that patients spend in a waiting room, it was important to maximize doctors’ access to daylight and views.”


Cheng’s exploratory interviews with One Heart Care also revealed that the client did not plan to occupy the clinic in back-to-back shifts. In fact, in a typical workweek, specialists like One Heart Care’s cardiologists crisscross the greater Toronto area to perform surgeries, conduct hospital rounds, visit clinics, and more. Each may touch down in Mississauga only one or two days per week as a result. Taking these occupancy patterns as well as future growth into account, Cheng created usage diagrams that yielded a stunning insight: on days when most cardiologists were working elsewhere, 20,000 square feet would appear relatively empty to patients. “The people who come here know they are sick; they are walking in with anxiety. You don’t want patients to confront a space whose quietness might be confusing, or which tests their confidence.”

In response, Cheng configured the interior as a series of pods, which power up or down depending on capacity. All four pods operate when numerous cardiologists are on site. On less busy days, activity can take place in one or two pods to preserve the density and human energy of a full clinic.


To clarify the clinic’s organizing principles, a specific cardiac service or treatment takes place in each pod. There are three examination pods, of which one is dedicated to imaging, while the fourth pod is reserved for education, research, and operations. Cheng assigned specific colors to the pods for ease of wayfinding, and each of these color-coded spaces includes a secondary reception area and a three-to-one ratio of exam rooms to doctor’s offices. Cheng also carefully conceived the circulation between pods, so that a caregiver serving multiple areas could take back-of-house shortcuts.


Cheng, who had completed more than 10 healthcare commissions prior to One Heart Care, notes that doctors are relatively hands-off clients “once you’ve convinced them that the traffic flows are optimal.” After receiving signoff on his four-pod layout for One Heart Care, then, the architect predicated his remaining design decisions on patient experience. Empathy for patients manifests in the planning of the primary and secondary reception spaces, which reflect varying desires for privacy and casual interaction. The interior’s efficient circulation also creates sightlines so that visitors may glimpse fellow patients in other pods, about which Cheng comments, “When we help patients see one another, they don’t feel restricted in their movement. And they feel less alone in their health journey.”


The project’s material palette embodies further concern for human comfort. “Healthcare surfaces are usually manmade, because these environments need to be nonporous and hard-wearing, but I wanted materials to evoke a garden, because nature is very calming,” says Cheng, noting how Krion countertops and Xlight large-format tiles were chosen for their uncanny resemblance to limestone and marble. Wood panels complement the veining of the Porcelanosa products, while stainless-steel accents remind observers that the space is an interpretation of the great outdoors.


Cheng had specified Porcelanosa for several of his previous healthcare commissions, but never at the scale of One Heart Care. He remembers the pleasant surprise of learning how the company shared his interest in expressing nature “in an architectural format” and praises Porcelanosa for producing his order of Krion and Xlight in single batches to eliminate color-calibration issues. And while Cheng sourced materials for their durability and biomimicry, he emphasizes that, as with C& Partners’ entire design of One Heart Care, choices are always made with healthcare professionals at the front of mind. “Doctors can examine a grumpy patient, but wouldn’t they prefer to see patients who feel they’ve been treated with dignity and welcome? I’m here to make that patient feel respected.”

To view more photos of the One Heart Care project, click here.