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Feb 05, 2022

Uma Ramanathan FAIA

Ramanathan Uma

Degree(s): University of Madras (India), BArch; University of Michigan, MArch

Professional interests: Pediatrics, healthcare operations, sustainability, family-centered design, modernizing healthcare

When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?

Growing up, I always loved sketching and watercolors, tending to capture the built environment more than nature. Near the end of middle school and early high school, my father, a developer, recognized my interest in following him into the building industry. When I was in high school, he asked for my advice about an affordable housing development he was working on. From there, one thing led to another, and here we are.

If you could give the you of 10 years ago advice, what would it be?

Don’t shy away from taking risks. Go after what you’re passionate about, even if people disagree or if it’s a risky position.

What has been your most proud moment as an architect/designer?

I work with a very vulnerable population: sick children and their families. I’m most proud of any project that successfully combines transcending industry limitations with ensuring the highest level of care through a family-friendly experience. Recently, when working with Boston Children’s Hospital on the Berthiaume Family Building, my ambition to foster a heightened cardiac services patient experience led to the creation of a collaborative cardiac environment with six different subsets of the same service under one roof. This required a commitment from all parties to improve process and practice. The result balances high-acuity patient needs with a family-friendly experience.

Sketches of Boston Childrens Hospital Uma Ramanathan

Sketches of the Boston Children’s Hospital floor plan.

Image courtesy Uma Ramanathan

What do you hope to contribute from your work?

I want to see the next generation of architects be passionate about pediatrics and the healthcare communities they design for. During every project, I spend a day visiting the area of the hospital we’re designing, if I can. It does something for you emotionally to observe people working in the ICU and see children and their families. Being in the moment, seeing the space, being passionate about the users—that's how we can be part of changing the environment to create the best pediatric healthcare facilities.

What do you see as the largest barrier to equity in your profession?

We as architects need to be able to pull back and allow people to join us. As architects, we are taught to be presenters, so we all do a lot of talking. Equity in architecture to me is bringing all ideas to the forefront and getting everyone to the same level of understanding. The question, then, is how to encourage people to speak up, and how we can listen to others if we are the ones who are presenting the most. I try to listen more than I talk because that’s where you learn the most and how we allow people to feel included.

What are some changes that you have implemented in your firm (or for yourself) to address issues of equity in your profession?

I try to find ways to see how we can include people into our community. I mentor individuals within the firm. We have very open and transparent conversations about justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion regularly, with regard to both projects and firm culture. While we’re aware of our differences, we don’t highlight them. It’s about inclusion, not exclusion. Before the pandemic, I always invited every team I was on to my home for a dinner. It makes such a profound impact on team building, and it’s a practice I plan to continue throughout my career.

John R Oishei Childrens Hospital Lobby Laura Peters Cannon Design

Shepley Bulfinch designed the John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital with family, patients, and community in mind.

Image courtesy Laura Peters

Tell us about your path to architecture and how it has impacted your career.

My motto throughout my career has been, “When you care for a child, you’re really caring for the whole family.”

I spent my early career planning public schools, allowing me to see children from a different perspective. I better understood how size barriers needed to be broken down and appreciated how to treat children as sophisticated minds and users. My career trajectory changed following a difficult incident with my own daughter during a three-week stay in the NICU. I was so moved by my child’s inability to advocate for herself and make decisions during critical moments that I focused my practice to include family in the care delivery model of pediatrics.

What is the most effective step you’ve taken in your work toward a more sustainable built environment?

The added cost of creating a more sustainable built environment can be a challenge to justify in healthcare. I have found success in focusing on the clinical research that proves the benefits of integrating sustainability. Biophilia and gardens in hospitals, for example, have been proven to reduce the length of a hospital stay and foster wellness on multiple levels. Focusing on the benefits almost always outweighs the cost.

What do you see as the largest barrier to a zero-waste building, city, and world?

Cost will continue to be the largest barrier to a zero-waste building, city, and world until our society understands the long-term benefits of sustainability. We need to be able to think innovatively about how we approach our designs. Healthcare environments, for example, will often have more waste due to the need for sterility, but we can think differently about other areas where waste can be reduced in a facility.

East Tennessee Childrens Hospital Denise Retallack

East Tennessee Children's Hospital.

Image courtesy Denise Retallack

Where do you find inspiration?

Inspiration comes from the users—the humans behind the design.

What are you reading right now?

I’m currently reading a book about an Indian guru. I don’t read much fiction, but reading, to me, is a way to have support in difficult times.

What was your least favorite college class?

Software Programming.

Hale Family Building Shepley Bulfinch

Rendering of Hale Family Building, 2022.

Image courtesy Shepley Bulfinch

What would you like to see change about Boston’s built environment?

Boston absolutely needs a reduction in cars. We need more pedestrian spaces, more public transportation, more spaces that can be used by people, not vehicles.

Have you had a memorable experience while working on a BSA initiative that you would like to share?

My most memorable BSA initiative was working on the Women in Design Showcase in 2018. It was a chance to share a project I am extremely proud of, the John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital, and the experience of designing a pediatric facility with the goal of wellness not only for the sick children, but also for their families, hospital staff, and visitors.

If you could sum up your outlook on life in a bumper sticker, what would it say?

“Never look back.”