Sharp HealthCare, a not-for-profit health-care system based in San Diego, is excitedly awaiting the final word on its first LEED Gold certification application. The three-story, 66,365-square-foot Sharp Rees-Stealy Downtown Medical Center, which replaces a building across the street, opened its doors on November 2012, continuing its 90-year history of providing health services to the San Diego community.

The new medical center is home to primary and specialty care facilities, plus laboratory, occupational health, pharmacy, physical therapy, radiology, and urgent care. Through these services, 66 physicians handle more than 140,000 patient visits annually.

The architectural theme of the new building was to capture the light to make way-finding intuitive for all those patients. “The path of light was traced on every floor into every public area and makes the building feel open and connected to the exterior environment,” says Pat Nemeth, vice president of facilities for Sharp HealthCare, who managed the building’s design and construction. Clerestory windows were used in interior exam rooms to pull natural light into areas that did not have exterior windows.

The L-shaped building’s most significant feature is the tri-level atrium. Bridges on the second and third floor look down onto glass glazed in shades of green, blue, and tan. “The colors are gentle, soft, and very comforting,” Nemeth says. “When people step into the building, they stop and say, ‘Wow, this is really beautiful.’ This isn’t just a place that provides health care—it’s a place that is uplifting and inspiring.”

The view from the third floor of this state-of-the-art medical center in San Diego shows its spacious design, a key component of its soothing environment.

The view from the third floor of this state-of-the-art medical center in San Diego shows its spacious design, a key component of its soothing environment.

The inspiration doesn’t end with the patients. The facility was built around a 123-year-old Moreton Bay Fig tree, which was planted by local arborist Kate Sessions more than a century ago. Because the tree is a certified historical landmark, it had to be protected by a certified arborist during the entire construction process, and the team carved a footprint around the tree so it wouldn’t be disturbed.

As a symbol of wellness, the tree also served as design inspiration for the interior. First, it forms a backdrop for a history wall that commemorates Sharp Rees-Stealy’s years of service to the community. Large hand-blown blue, green, and copper glass leaves decorate each of the central reception rooms on all three floors. In the urgent care department, a commissioned local artist used actual branches from the tree as stencils to create a series of five wood-stained panels. Finally, to bring natural light into a part of the building that faces the parking structure and to camouflage the parking area, film photographs of the tree’s branches were used in a number of glass panels.

The medical center should get 69 LEED points, including one for saving the tree. Those points came from features such as a 75-kilowatt rooftop photovoltaic system, high-efficiency insulated glazing, window-shading devices, an energy management system, and daylighting. Light shelves in the pharmacy and gym draw natural light into the interior. A second floor green roof increases insulation, while a white roof above the third floor reflects heat. Plus, a bike rack encourages alternate transportation, hybrid and low-energy cars get preferred parking, and high-efficiency irrigation and native plants reduce water consumption.

The building is projected to be 29 percent more energy efficient than a building of its size designed to meet the California Building Code, and it is a hit with the community. “Everyone is just pleased and delighted to see this beautiful building,” Nemeth says.