Designed by the Minneapolis studio of Perkins&Will, Family Tree Clinic is an architectural expression of optimism and welcome for communities frequently overlooked by major medical systems. The building’s daylighting, art, and color greet visitors with the assurance of belonging and confidence.
Relocated from an old school in St. Paul, the new clinic in Minneapolis can serve 32,000 patients annually, an increase of 10,000 people from the capacity of its previous venue. This is a major improvement for Family Tree’s patients, 60 percent of whom are LGBTQ+, 70 percent meet low-income guidelines, and over 50 percent are Black, Indigenous, or people of color.
Family Tree was founded in St. Paul in 1971 as a community clinic where young people could receive sliding-scale reproductive health services with confidentiality. In the 51 years since, the organization has grown to serve underserved people throughout the region, while deeply expanding its services for LGBTQ+ populations.
Today, the clinic offers a range of sexual and reproductive health services, including contraception, gender-affirming hormone care, HIV and STI testing, and limited primary care services. In addition to integrative health care services, the organization provides health education programs, community engagement opportunities, and services to Deaf, deafblind, and hard-of-hearing individuals.
A Hidden Healthcare Crisis
With the move to south Minneapolis and the opportunity to build a new 17,000-square-foot clinic, Family Tree and Perkins&Will had the rare chance to design a new kind of healing space from the ground up, filling an urgent social need with few architectural precedents. While a growing number of established healthcare organizations across the country are adding many of Family Tree’s services as part of their spectrum of care, not all are places where all patients feel welcomed.
Family Tree’s Director of Advancement Debra deNoyelles told AN that “almost all of our patients have experienced medical trauma in some form.” In response, she described how the building was “intentionally designed to reduce barriers to health, from the ‘Health at Every Size’ ethos of our waiting room furniture to the natural light and clear wayfinding.”
Trauma-informed principles drove the space-planning approach. This starts at the front door, which is tucked under the second story on the northeast corner, creating a sheltered alcove, rather than fronting the busy street. The architects slid the board room on the main floor to the south, a move that enclosed the courtyard community garden and created space for the covered entry.
This sense of protection extends into the second-floor clinic area, where the enclosed flex and focus rooms are tucked away from corridors in secluded spaces for staff and patients to have private conversations.
Daylighting is a powerful tool in healing design, but large storefront windows looking directly into the street can leave occupants feeling exposed. To balance illumination with privacy, the ground-floor board room connects to the street and daylight with individual vertical windows in varied widths based on the module of the exterior’s linear Norman brick. The strategy creates a kind of effect of prospect and refuge—the sense of being able to see out while remaining sheltered.
Another design strategy is to overcome feelings of entrapment or confinement. On both levels, there is always a view to the exterior from corridors and meeting rooms. Users can clearly see there is a way out if required. The design also places translucent windows in exam rooms allowing for both borrowed daylight and a sense of egress, while providing visual privacy within the room.
As a result of the focus on daylighting, every hallway terminates with an outside view. One is reminded of the time of day and season and is offered a natural sense of direction.
Setting the Mood
The architects used color to create both calming and enlivening moods. Visitors arrive in a pool of light and color in the entry lobby before entering the light-filled yellow stairway and the “living room” lounge that looks into the side garden. Lindsey Evenson, a senior associate at Perkins&Will and project manager for the clinic, explained that they “wanted to incorporate bright colors to reflect the vitality of Family Tree’s patients and staff without leaning too juvenile.” Wall finishes and upholstery colors provide modern variations on the boldness of primary colors. With furniture for all body types and activities, the living room offers varied seating choices along with an elegant wooden bookshelf of titles that invite lingering.
Family Tree offers extensive services for Deaf individuals, especially for those who also identify as LGBTQ+. Staff and visitors use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate, a practice that requires privacy film on glass expanses to have private meetings. Hallways in the building are 6 feet wide to accommodate the visual distance needed for ASL conversations in motion.
Though an added cost in a tight-budget project, the open halls heighten visual connections to the outside and reduces the sense of claustrophobia that some feel in corridors. Even though the living room and lobby are filled with colorful murals, the designers ensured that, especially in collaboration areas, the walls are painted solid colors that do not distract from ASL communication.
Capturing the Spirit
Regardless of its architecture, Family Tree’s most powerful tool for addressing trauma is its organizational culture. People come here with the confidence that they will be seen and heard as a whole person. One of the architects’ greatest worries stemmed from the clinic staffs’ fear that a new building would lack the ambience and spirit of the old school facility in St. Paul. Though inaccessible, cramped, and unsuited for current programming, these former classroom spaces somehow conveyed a genuine sense of “acceptance” over the clinic’s five decades.
With that said, there is something about Family Tree’s efforts that runs far deeper than its facilities or specific services. On the day after the 2016 election, people spontaneously gathered in the clinic lobby to find a place of refuge, reassurance, and mutual support. This kind of attachment to place is difficult to replicate in new buildings.
Yet, over the last year, it is safe to say that this spirit surely lives on. The staff have embraced their new home in Minneapolis and say they do their work more effectively. The new building is used for staff recruitment when people visit for interviews. Its open sight lines and space, allow employees to make eye contact from their workstations in lieu of having to search for one another.
“Typically in a healthcare project, the patients are the focus,” Perkins&Will’s Principal and Design Director Tony Layne said. “Here we expanded that to include the wellbeing of clinic employees as well.” Thus, on the second level, the staff share spacious open workspaces with large windows overlooking the downtown skyline. On the ground floor, the staff lounge and kitchen overlook the cloistered side garden with a private zone to have lunch and gather under the trees.
A Regional Reach
When the new clinic opened in November 2021, the light, color, and animation of its design captivated visitors and tour groups. “I’ve never worked a project where funding keeps coming in this long after the building is operational,” deNoyelles said.
Opening in the midst of the pandemic, with many of the city’s stores and businesses closed (and at the inauguration of a right-leaning Supreme Court and an unfortunate rise in anti-trans sentiment), Family Tree’s expressive new home seems like a bright spot of hope for patients and donors.
When Family Tree opened, the Star Tribune ran a lead editorial celebrating its social importance and healing design. “A towering stairwell is painted an almost luminescent daffodil hue, an effect enhanced when the sunlight streams in through an overhead skylight,” the paper noted. Such architectural details are rarely mentioned in the editorials of regional daily papers. But here they play an essential role in the story.
Before Family Tree’s founding, there was no community clinic like it in the region. The same holds true for many central and southern parts of the country. People travel to Family Tree from Nebraska, the Dakotas, and other states for healthcare and support not available locally.
With the overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision by the Supreme Court, Family Tree Clinic has an even greater void to fill in its seven-state service area. Although the clinic does not perform abortions, requests for pre- and post-abortion services have increased markedly, as have requests for birth control appointments and emergency contraception.
Language, Identity, and Healing Design
I first visited Family Tree in late 2021 when supply chain issues were delaying completion. Construction vehicles and dumpsters filled the parking lot, and wall finishes had yet to be applied. Yet, as the winter passed, the bright living room—filled with Perkins&Will’s color palette and plants of all sizes—bloomed with a bold and comforting spirit. Sometimes, I would stay two hours just to read or write.
Early this summer, the courtyard garden opened, creating a safe haven for patients and staff. Perkins&Will donated the plants, and team members spent a Saturday installing them. Then seven large murals painted by local BIPOC artists began to fill wall spaces inside and out. Bold in color and form, each mural reflects on Family Tree Community Listening Sessions focusing on the question: “Where does your healing come from?”
The murals celebrate many paths to healing that lie outside inherited assumptions about healthcare. In the wide-ranging conversations that the artists held with community members, people described connections to the natural world, the arts, and each other as powerful sources of healing.
At Family Tree, you’ll see signs at the entry requesting the use of gender-neutral language while visiting. At first, I found this request off-putting, but now the idea makes more sense to me. Language is part of one’s social identity. When rigid and narrow, it can close off human acceptance and even recognition. Yet the evolution of new words and their uses can open extraordinary possibilities for social change. The same holds true for the depth of language used in architecture—consider the many ways we can discuss (and create) scale, character, and belonging.
A few months ago, a staff member at Family Tree’s front desk told me that some people they meet find today’s spectrum of personal pronouns confusing. Yet, “without them,” they asserted, “people like me didn’t exist fifteen years ago.”
Frank Edgerton Martin is a landscape historian, architectural writer, and design journalist.
- Architect: Perkins&Will
- Contractor: Greiner Construction
- Structural and Civil Engineer: BKBM Engineers
- MEP Engineer: Victus Engineering
- Signage/Branding Design: KNOCK
- Furniture Dealer: Fluid Interiors
- Owner’s Representative: Grand Real Estate Advisors
- Brick: Endicott
- Paint: Benjamin Moore, Sherwin Williams
- Photography: Gaffer Photography, Nathan Anderson Photography