Maximizing Human Impact Per Square Foot

A Builders Who Care interview with Hisa Zhu, Owners' Representative with Hammes

Welcome to "Builders who Care", a series of interviews with construction leaders driving innovation in their field. These builders are committed to their craft and to positively impacting the communities they serve. From implementing sustainable building practices to deploying cutting-edge technology, these individuals are leading the charge in creating a brighter future for the construction industry.


In this installment we interview Hisa Zhu, Senior Project Executive at Hammes Healthcare, a healthcare consulting, development, investment and management firm. She is currently involved as OPM, Owner's Representative and Program Manager in the building of Wynn Hospital for the Mohawk Valley Health System in downtown Utica, New York. We talk to Hisa about her passion for what she does and being a creative and fun changemaker in construction.

A Passion for Healthcare Projects

Disperse: Hisa, can you tell us a little about the trajectory of your career and how you got into the healthcare construction industry?

Hisa: After architecture school I worked for a couple of firms, one of which was a healthcare design firm. I did a ton of renovation projects and expansions on the design end as hospital campuses tend to be in a constant state of flux of moving departments around as technology, processes, and demand continues to change.  After a number of years on the design end, I chose to shift gears and went on to be a PM for a design-build firm.  The industry has become a very siloed one as compared to the time of the “master builder”, and I really needed to understand and experience the building of healthcare from the builder’s perspective.  The intent was to gain some real-world construction experience and return to architecture.

But once I went over to “the dark side” — as architects call it — there was no going back.  Construction is just way more fun. (Sorry architects!)  Since then, I have been involved with the building of healthcare from a variety of angles: programming and design, project management, business development, and now on the OPM/Owner’s side.  

The depth of my experience works well for my current role.  It’s about understanding and appreciating what the design intent is and how the Users’ workflow functions via that design.  It’s about the practicality, prioritization and problem-solving to manage cost and schedule. It’s about understanding the hospital system’s mission and business objectives, and ultimately supporting that in whatever you do.  And having worked in the industry from various angles allows me to appreciate what the different members of the project team are working with: their process, their guardrails, their challenges, and help align them with accomplishing the Client’s goals.

Disperse: What excites you about healthcare construction, and what does a typical day look like?

Hisa: I think what excites me the most about healthcare construction and hospitals in particular is that what you are building is ultimately this complex living, breathing micro-universe. It’s incredible what the combination of technology and human skill/expertise can accomplish in terms of healing the human body, and that only occurs when the building, systems, technology, and people all work in concert. Everything must come together seamlessly, and on the building end it requires a tremendous amount of coordination. Healthcare has more complexity to it than a lot of other building types, and I like the problem-solving and collaboration that comes with that.

A million balls in the air

There is no such thing as a typical day in my world. On a project of this size and complexity it’s about communication, planning, and having the agility to prioritize and address the issues as they come at you.  One day I might be working with DOT and the signage designer about wayfinding to the hospital. The next day I might be looking at the headwall in an emergency room ensuring we've got the right count of outlets and devices on it.  On yet another day, I could be working with the hospital foundation on a donor campaign item.  At the end of the day its all about doing what needs to be done to accomplish the Client’s project and organizational objectives.

And that's part of what makes this job so great for me. I thrive on having fifty balls in the air, constantly shifting gears, and collaborating to problem solve; it keeps me engaged and excited about what I do.

Being a Changemaker

Disperse: You mentioned that it isn't always the scale or dollar value of a project that give you the most satisfaction. Can you expand on that?

Hisa: Don’t get me wrong – a 700,000 sf ground up hospital has tremendous value and impact on a community, especially one like the Wynn that will not only consolidate healthcare but be the cornerstone of downtown revitalization in Utica.  But it’s important to remember that the value of human impact per square foot can be high on even the smallest of projects.  In fact, one of the projects I am most proud of is probably the smallest I’ve ever been involved with in terms of footprint and dollar value, and not even in healthcare: the John McKenna IV Military Courtesy Room (MCR) at the Albany International Airport. It’s a place where members of the military and their family members can use as a place of respite instead of having to wait on the concourse or in a public area.

It's a room of about 500 sf with a couple of recliners, a kitchenette, a TV area with an Xbox, and a desk where a volunteer checks people in. The military personnel who come through there are often 18-, 19-year-olds. Just kids, really. Sometimes it’s their first time away from home, some don't have a dollar in their pocket.

They might be with a family member who is in tears because the kid is headed to basic training or maybe a spouse is being deployed for the third or fourth time. It's a quiet and private space for people who are in what is often a stressful time. And having a quiet space where they can be for a while can make a big difference.

Human Impact per square foot: HI/sf

I’ve been fortunate to be a part of change with the MCR on a couple of fronts.  Years ago I was sitting at the Austin Airport when a friend and colleague called. The son of one of our colleagues had been killed in Afghanistan. She asked if I could help think of a way the company could honor him.  I assured her I absolutely would and hung up.  Wandering the airport I happened upon a poster that read: If you are a member of the military and your flight is delayed or cancelled, go to the USO office, and they will put you up for free at the Airport Hilton.

The company I worked for owned hotels across the New York Capital Region.  Why couldn’t we replicate it? When I got back to the office I went to see the Owner.  I’d spoken to him exactly once over the course of several years of employment and his personality and stature were not for the faint of heart.  What’s the worst that could happen anyways? He could only say no.  I marched in and said “I have an idea.  Just hear me out.”  He listened while I explained what I envisioned. And when I was done, he said just four words: absolutely, get it done.

And so the Stranded Soldier program at the Albany Airport was born in the memory of Pfc. David Taylor Miller.  A year later, the Military Courtesy Room sought fundraising to expand and renovate.  Again, it was a conversation with senior leadership, and again they stepped up and the renovation and expansion was done completely free of charge.  To date since its original opening the Military Courtesy Room has hosted over 150,000 soldiers and their families.  Think about that.  The footprint might be small, but the value of human impact per square foot is enormous.  And we were able to support that just by starting with a conversation and a question.  That is one of the best parts of my job - to be able to use my position to be a conduit and engage people to make a positive impact.  I certainly didn’t do the heavy lift on this one – but I was able to connect those who could and did.  It’s pretty awesome.

Engaging the Community: "Build a Hospital Contest"

Disperse: You are big on getting people engaged.

Hisa: I definitely am.  Although a better description might be that I’m big on roping people into my shenanigans. I am lucky to be surrounded by people who are willing to participate and come along for the ride.  The Wynn Hospital is a perfect example where both the Client and the project team have been incredibly supportive of my crazy ideas.

About a year into the pandemic we did something called the "Build a Hospital Contest." Kids were all at home attending school and seeing friends remotely. Parents were working remote, likely desperate to find ways to keep kids busy and entertained.  It was also around Women in Construction Week, so we were concurrently brainstorming initiatives to get more girls interested in the industry.  I credit our lead Superintendent Steve who made us shift our focus to the younger demographics of elementary and middle school kids, because to his point, by the time kids are winding up high school they will likely have some general idea of what they are interested in – and conversely what fields aren’t for them.

The premise of the contest was to build “your” vision of a hospital using materials found at home, and it had to include a main entrance, an emergency department, a patient tower, a green space, and a helipad. Submissions could be made by emailing photos to a dedicated email address we had set up.  We set these broad parameters to ensure that socio-economic status wouldn’t preclude a kid from entering and participating.  Like the hospital, we wanted this to be for everyone.

We only expected a few entries, but in the end we got over a hundred. We were overwhelmed and quite frankly it was a lesson learned of how much work it is to evaluate a hundred builds! They were made from all kinds of materials, from cardboard, to Legos, to pasta. We’ve had student groups on site to get a taste of the different aspects of a project like this, including design, 3D modeling and VR, and constructability.  We’ve had a panel discussion for career opportunities for women in the trades.  All these little things may seem insignificant in the big scheme of things, but if you’ve engaged these people in some way whether on a career path level or engagement with their hospital, that has meaning.Serving All Patients: The Utica Zoo

And it doesn’t have to stop with people.  We just recently had a meeting with the Utica Zoo to discuss equipment donation.  With the merging of two hospitals onto one campus, you are naturally going to have some redundancies, and hospital systems constantly have equipment that is reaching end of life (EOL), so we are working with a number of organizations with regards to equipment donation. With veterinary care, we have the capability of extending the life of equipment and supplies just because the regulation and requirements for humans is stricter than that of animals.  Ultimately I guess this is a project that can benefit ALL residents/patients of the community.

Human Impact of the Little Stuff

At the end of the day, the takeaway is simple: you can make a positive impact if you keep your eyes open for the possibilities.  All these little things may seem meaningless or whimsical. But it’s the little things that can often be the most meaningful.  And it’s no different than managing a project – you rally those around you to accomplish something awesome.

Take the contest for example.  Hospitals can be a scary thing.  People are generally not there because they want to be. I used to be an EMT, and when you’ve had that firsthand exposure to people who are hurt and frightened, it gives you the perspective into how the subtle things can make a difference.  A stock of small teddy bears on the rig.  A comforting hand on that of a patient’s.  A patient’s journey begins well before they arrive at the hospital and by engaging the community, including or perhaps especially kids, hopefully we can remove some of that scariness because they have had a “fun” exposure to the hospital.  And we’ve got plenty more of that coming at the Wynn Hospital so stay tuned and come along for the ride!

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