Mother Earth, Father Sky

Nov. 28, 2006
Lighting represents nature, comforts patients at tribal health center

By Craig DiLouie

The 58,038-square-foot Dulce Health Center, built in Dulce, NM, for the Jicarilla Apache Nation, features state-of-the-art steel construction and a design approach that blends the clinic with the natural terrain in an Apache cultural context.

The building faces east to greet the rising sun, celebrates the region’s basket-making and beadwork traditional crafts by integrating basket designs with the natural-colored walls and flooring patterns, and is externally sculpted to mimic the towering mountains surrounding the clinic.

“The client requested that we design a modern healthcare facility that provided state-of-the-art medicine and in which their tribal members would feel at home,” says Terrance J. Brown, FAIA, senior architect for New Mexico-based ASCG Inc. “They also wanted to be a part of the team, helping to design the facility to make it their own.”

Exposed steel rotunda roof beams, reaching toward the sky, are capped by a steel crown and skylight and support sound attenuation panels reminiscent of clouds. The two-story rotunda is ringed by 12, 8-inch-diameter steel columns truncated sharply at the top with 4-inch-diameter steel spheres linking steel aircraft cables to the above skylight ring. The 12 cables are evocative of traditional Jicarilla teepees. Etched glass panels depicting notable Jicarilla tribal members and Jicarilla cultural references and designs are framed by the stainless steel balcony railing and grand stair handrails.

“The architecture supports the client’s goals in the details of the design elements, from the razor-thin glass block window marking the morning sun to the design elements that support the tribe’s Red and White clans,” says Brown. “The murals, which were painted by a Jicarilla artist, accentuate the spiritual world of the Jicarilla Tribe.”

The lighting proved to be a critical element in supporting the project goals, he adds. “Many healthcare clients don’t want their facilities to represent an institution,” he explains. “The client required lighting that would support a warm and inviting atmosphere not normally seen in healthcare facilities, yet maintain the functionality essential in all care-specific areas of a healthcare facility.”

ASCG accomplished this goal with a project that earned a 2005 Cooper SOURCE Award for excellence in lighting design.

Design Maximizes Daylight

The main lobby/rotunda was the most sensitive space. Donald J. Gallegos, senior electrical designer, wanted to emphasize the light of the sun while minimizing the effects of lighting fixtures that would compete with its glow. Facing the east, the main lobby is filled with morning sunlight entering through the wall and ceiling. The architectural design allows slivers of daylight to slice through the rotunda wall from all cardinal directions, in particular the rising and setting sun. The rotunda in turn is capped with a sloping roof and is punctuated by a central skylight with ribs forming a geometric blanket design that allows sunlight to filter into the building in a soft glow.

Interestingly, the client didn’t want automatic lighting controls that would tune the lighting system’s light output based on input from a photosensor because system maintenance would be too difficult in the facility’s remote location. “Upper perimeter cove lighting, along with fluorescent downlights located on the lower and upper levels, are manually controlled from a central bank of switches on the lower level,” says Gallegos. “It is up to the building occupants to control the lighting in response to the glare, although I specified various lamp wattages in specific areas to eliminate glare when the lights are energized.” It was essential, he adds, that the lighting in the main lobby not overpower the cultural expression of the space.

In addition to the main lobby/rotunda area, daylight figured prominently in other spaces; due to the building’s Y shape, most of the rooms receive daylight and have mountain views. The meditation room, however, proved challenging in this regard. “The client wanted the occupant to interact with Mother Earth and Father Sky in this space,” Gallegos says. “But this space did not have any natural light.”

The architect incorporated three major elements in this room:

  • Circular-shaped room and octagonal wood slat ceiling with the center cove painted blue to represent Father Sky.
  • Four holes in the floor, exposing the earth below, to house sand paintings and represent Mother Earth.
  • A recessed lighted niche in the wall for a painting denoting tribal culture by a local artist.

The solution, says Gallegos, was to imitate the sky through lighting. A center “skylight” was formed by a 24-inch perimeter cove lighted by a low-voltage mini-cove festoon system, with lamps at 2 inches on center. The room’s perimeter in turn features a build-out cove fitted with compact fluorescent flex cove fixtures. When the room perimeter cove fixtures are lighted, it creates a shadow in the center of the artificially lighted center “skylight,” representing a comet.

“In regards to the lighting, I feel that the meditation room was the most creative accomplishment,” says Gallegos.

The Dulce Health Center faces east to greet the rising sun. The facility's architecture and lighting emphasize the light of the sun.

Light and Color Create Harmony

In addition to daylight, color supports a warm and inviting atmosphere. Spotlights accentuate the natural colors of the walls and help visitors to orient themselves. Colored fiber-optics are in conference rooms and waiting rooms. “We utilized two types of light emitters-140 side-emitters and 150 end-emitters with the primary colors in a color wheel,” says Gallegos. “The fiber-optic lighting was used to enhance the natural wood fur-downs in the waiting areas and the conference rooms. The combined use of light and color brought out the warmth that was essential in harmonizing the lighting design with the Jicarilla culture, and the proper setting for a Native American healthcare facility.”

Decorative lighting fixtures and direct/indirect 2x2 fluorescent fixtures contributed to the prevailing image of comfort. In the functional areas, the lighting provided light levels recommended in the IESNA Recommended Practice for Healthcare Facilities, and overall achieved a power density of 1.6W/square foot, as required by the state energy code.

“Overall, the lighting for the Dulce Health Center was a success as it accomplished exactly what the Health Board was looking for,” concludes Gallegos. “Many healthcare facilities can give off the impression of being cold and institutional, but that isn’t the case for the Dulce facility.”

Craig DiLouie, a journalist, analyst, and consultant, is principal at ZING Communications Inc. (www.zinginc.com).


Project: Dulce Health Center

Owner: Jicarilla Apache Nation

Location: Dulce, NM

Architect/Engineer: Terrance J. Brown, FAIA, Morris Lowden, AIA, ASCG Inc.

Project Manager: Morris Lowden, ASCG Inc.

Lighting Designer: Donald Gallegos, ASCG Inc.

Photography: Kirk Gittings Photography

Manufacturer: Cooper Lighting

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