Face Time: Karen Freeman At HOK Leave a comment

The principal and healthcare practice leader at HOK in Atlanta talks about the importance of asking questions, designing for neurodiversity, and her love of writing letters.

What drew you to a career in healthcare design?

I started my career doing higher education and multifamily housing projects before moving to a firm that had a healthcare studio. I assumed I would continue in education but was quickly added to a pediatric healthcare project. In those early user group meetings, I scribbled down medical procedures referenced and in the evenings would look them up on WebMD and YouTube and read every article I could find. I quickly grew to love this field. I get to work with incredibly smart people who are delivering innovative and lifesaving healthcare solutions to patients and their families—and I learn something new every day.

What was your first healthcare project?

A pediatric ambulatory center for a new provider in Florida.

What design lesson from that project do you still carry with you today?

Ask questions. People are excited to tell you about how they work and where there are opportunities for innovation. Also, challenge the status quo—the clinical team may not necessarily know how things might work better and sometimes you can show them.


Three recent healthcare design projects and your role

1 Grady Health System Correll Pavilion, Atlanta, lead medical planner.

2 University of Miami New Cancer Research Building, Miami, lead clinical planner.

3 Orlando Health Winnie Palmer Hospital, Women’s Institute, Orlando, Fla., principal-in-charge and lead medical planner.

What do you like best about working in healthcare design?

The care the clinicians provide is paramount. But when you think of the power that the built environment can have to influence the experience of patients and their families during what can be an incredibly difficult time in their lives, it’s both a humbling and inspiring field.

What challenges about your work keep you up at night?

I want our team to have opportunities to learn and excel. I think a lot about how to ensure they have interesting projects that challenge them, the space and time to learn and innovate, and the support they need to grow their careers and establish their passions and expertise. Making all that happen at the same time as delivering the best possible projects to meet our clients’ goals is a lot of work, but it’s worth it.

What trend in healthcare design do you welcome as a breath of fresh air?

Designing for neurodiversity. Developing spaces that engage but don’t overwhelm, that encourage rapport and connection, and that facilitate the most positive patient experience possible for a population who may have felt their perspective in the healthcare space wasn’t important is exciting and rewarding.

Which design trend do you wish would go away?

Designing around a specific provider or process. I see one of my key roles as a medical planner as a consensus builder: collecting information on operations and needs and developing solutions that aggregate these in a flexible and adaptable solution to serve the health system over the long term.

Outside the office, you serve as president of the Georgia Chapter of Women in Healthcare and are of president-elect of the national organization. Why is this involvement important to you?

Women make up 80 percent of the workforce in healthcare but hold fewer than 20 percent of CEO positions and head only 4 percent of healthcare companies (based on a Korn Ferry Executive Survey). Coming from a male-dominated industry like design and construction, I can relate to that minority of representation in leadership positions. I believe it’s important for women to build each other up and to create opportunities for the many talents of women leaders to shine, for the benefit of themselves, their companies, and their communities.

An unexpected item on your desk

A hand-carved wooden warthog figure. It was given to me by my friend Baz, an energetic Irish dentist with a penchant for storytelling, during my Habitat for Humanity trip to Lilongwe, Malawi.

Outside the office, we’ll likely find you …

Traveling somewhere—for a client meeting, user group session, hospital tour, and, every once in a while, for fun!

What’s a new habit you’ve picked up during the pandemic?

I purchased a box of 50 Marimekko postcards online and every day at lunch I would sit and write a postcard to a friend, client, or colleague who I was thinking of.  Not more than a few lines about the mundane happenings of lockdown, but I enjoyed the connection—and based on the responses, my recipients enjoyed receiving them, too. I’ve always been a prolific correspondent, but I enjoyed being more intentional about reaching out just to say, “I’m thinking of you,” in a time when we all felt so isolated.

You can’t live without …

My noise cancelling headphones for travel.

Morning person or night owl?

Morning person. It comes from my father who is such a morning person that he’s awake at the same time as some of the night owls.

Fiction or nonfiction?

Fiction, closely followed by modern poetry.

How did you make your first dollar?

I was a math tutor for a home-schooled student whose math talents had outpaced her parents. Being a math nerd can be profitable!

Your go-to karaoke song

“Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey. It helps when everyone else wants to sing along!

First album you ever bought

“Killroy Was Here” by Styx.

Cocktail of choice

An Old Fashioned with extra Luxardo cherries, please.

Your hidden talent

From years of hosting and documenting user group meetings, I can write upside down with relative ease. This often elicits more oohs and aahs than the design solution at hand, sadly.

If you weren’t an architect, you would be …

I would want to work for Rago Arts, investigating the provenance of mid-century modern auction items.  I love the stories of how these pieces came into the hands of their original owners, and the lives they’ve seen over the last 70 years.

You have an irrational fear of …

My husband dying. If he’s a few minutes late to anything, I immediately assume the worst. I’d be lost without him.

Favorite …

Quote “Never let anyone—any person or any force—dampen, dim, or diminish your light … Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Release all bitterness. Hold only love, only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won.”—John Lewis

Movie character Kathleen Kelley from “You’ve Got Mail.” Don’t cry, Shopgirl.

Weekend activity Hikes with my husband and my dog, Agnes; trips to the lake with my girlfriends; cocktails at Ticonderoga Club.

Zoom background My favorite to see is your actual home—bonus points for dog sightings! My voyeuristic tendencies were in peak form early in the pandemic, scoping out the homes of both my colleagues and celebrities doing interviews from home. The Twitter account “Rate My Skype Room” gives point scores for background composition—chef’s kiss!

Show to binge watch in the last year “Severance” on Apple TV+. It’s dark but mind-bending. And the mid-century filming locations in Eero Saarinen’s Bell Works in Holmdel, N.J., are incredible.

Band/musical artist Spoon. I even flew out to LA to see them perform at the Hollywood Bowl with St. Vincent—amazing!

Color I had my aura read once and it was mostly violet and red. This apparently spoke to my creativity and wit, but my tendency to be too in my own head—pretty accurate.

Guilty pleasure Singing loudly, and terribly, in my car.

Snack when you travel Gummy candy. I’m a gummy candy connoisseur. You have to find the perfect balance of texture and taste.

Ice cream flavor Jeni’s Ice Cream Goat Cheese with Red Cherries.

Sport College football, soccer.

Team Oklahoma State University (football), Atlanta United (soccer)

Book “I Hope This Finds You Well: Poems,” by Kate Baer. Baer crafts stunning “white out” poems where she takes messages sent to her through social media and removes words to reframe them as poetic messages. I am in awe of her talents and inspired by her heart and mind.

City to visit Naoshima Island, Japan. Located in the middle of the inland Seto Sea, this island is an art mecca. If you stay in the Tadao Ando-designed hotel, which is a work of art itself, you get unencumbered access to the many art museums on the island. Among them is the Chichu Museum, devoted to four artists: Ando, James Turrell, Walter De Maria, and Claude Monet. Not wanting to conflict with the natural beauty of the island, the museum is subterranean and entirely naturally lit.  Taking off your shoes as you walk into the Monet Hall, it’s a 5,000-square-foot space, lit from hidden clerestory windows, with a floor made of die-sized, hand-carved, white marble tiles. I’ve never seen anything like it. I still dream of the craftsmanship in that floor.



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