If the Cizik School of Nursing building looks newer than its years, that’s because it was designed with the future – of nursing and the planet – in mind.
From an environmental perspective, the building stands as the crowning achievement of the late Brian Yeoman, who retired as UTHealth Houston’s associate vice president for facilities, planning, and development in 2003. Yeoman was a pioneering champion of sustainability and procurement during his 27 years with the university.
BNIM Architects of Kansas City, which specializes in sustainability, was engaged to lead the project and worked alongside San Antonio-based Lake | Flato Architects as well as consultants representing 17 disciplines and specialties.
Planning and design took several years with many, many stakeholder group meetings. “The process was very laborious and methodical. Everybody had input,” said Dean Emerita Patricia L. Starck, PhD, RN, FAAN, who entrusted day-to-day management of the process to Associate Dean for Management Nancy McNeil, PhD. McNeil now serves as senior associate dean for administrative affairs at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston.
Innovation requires investment, and the late Robert Cizik, a longtime UTHealth Houston supporter, chaired a successful philanthropic campaign to raise $10 million toward the building’s ultimate price tag of $57 million.
Then called the School of Nursing and Student Community Center, the building officially opened in October 2004. The 194,000-square-foot, eight-story facility includes approximately 20,000 square feet of space in 23 state-of-the-art classrooms, a 200-seat auditorium, a café, the PARTNERS student lounge, student government offices, research laboratories, and faculty/administration offices.
Its design speaks to the important relationship between the practice of nursing and the built environment in promoting health-centered lives. The design won several prestigious state and national awards, and in 2009, it became the first structure in The University of Texas System to earn LEED® Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.
A commitment to conservation shows from the use of recycled building materials to resource-saving design elements. More than three-quarters of the materials used in construction were recycled from old buildings or industrial scraps within a 200-mile radius of Houston. Fly ash concrete, made with a byproduct from coal-fired power plants, supports the structure, and shredded blue jeans make up the insulation.
The building is designed to accept desirable daylight while rejecting unwanted heat. A specialized air conditioning system lowers energy costs by cooling from the floor up, rather than from the ceiling down. Rainwater is funneled into large cisterns to flush toilets and water the landscape, reducing the school’s water costs by more than 90%.
The building was ahead of its time technologically as well as architecturally. Audio/visual equipment in classrooms enabled real-time remote interactions, and students could connect to the internet from any classroom or study area.
Virtual learning eventually caught up with the building’s technology, enabling graduate students to complete most of their coursework remotely while taking advantage of opportunities to meet and interact with their faculty and peers each semester. The well-equipped learning environment also facilitated the abrupt transition to online instruction necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic’s onset in March 2020.
A simulation lab with high-tech manikins served as a centerpiece when the building opened. After an expansion 15 years later, it now occupies the entire fourth floor. Its 27,000 square feet of space contains six high-acuity rooms simulating the hospital environment, four debriefing rooms, 14 patient exam rooms, and a home health apartment. From a centralized audio/visual control room, faculty members or preceptors can monitor students, lead scenarios, and operate high-tech robotic “patients.”
In 2007, another simulation lab was constructed in an annex across a breezeway from the main building, initially for Professor Sandra K. Hanneman’s research of circadian rhythms in critically ill patients on mechanical ventilation. She began the project during the late 1990s in a laboratory at the Texas Heart Institute that Tropical Storm Allison destroyed in 2001, along with Hanneman’s research.
“About two years later, I started looking for funding to build a lab at the nursing school,” said Hanneman, PhD, RN, FAAN. She continued her NIH-funded project in the new lab with financial support from UT System, PARTNERS, and private foundations. A second-round research grant did not come through due to the expense and difficulty of replicating the study. Now, the lab has been remodeled into the nurse anesthesia simulation lab.
Cizik School of Nursing’s scientists do most of their work in the Research Department, which houses the bioscience laboratory, a behavioral science laboratory with an observation mirror, the Center for Nursing Research (CNR), and the new Smart Apartment. In June 2021, the CNR biosciences lab attained a Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) Certificate of Waiver from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, greatly expanding the number and types of tests authorized by CLIA that the lab can provide for research and clinical purposes. Its -80 Celsius and liquid nitrogen freezers support Cizik School of Nursing’s management of UT System Health Biobank Consortium.
The new space – built specifically for nursing education – was a far cry from the office building that served as the school’s previous home for 30 years. In 2012, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center had the old structure imploded to make way for new construction.
Faculty who made the move from 1100 Holcombe Blvd. to 6901 Bertner Ave. recall working out a few bugs. All enjoyed the ample natural light and the feeling of being closer to nature that the new home provided, as well as the technology needed to advance nursing education and discovery.
“We were the gold standard,” said retired professor Gwen Sherwood, PhD, RN, former associate dean for community affairs. “So many people came to look at the new building and replicate what we were doing.”