Fayetteville, Arkansas


Marlon Blackwell has a gift for seeing potential in the commonplace. During a tour of his latest pro bono project, Fayetteville's new Northwest Arkansas Free Medical Center, the architect veered off to a window and pointed to the eccentric form of a derelict incinerator building in an adjacent lot. “Look at that! If you leave the roof and rework the other side . . .” His voice picked up pace as he mentally renovated the structure. Blackwell's brief musing illustrates precisely the approach that his firm took in designing the clinic: bring new life and clarity to an existing but mundane building. “Our approach to adaptive reuse or renovation is to look at its DNA and extend that DNA into how the building evolves,” says the architect.

Since the mid-1980s the medical center had been providing care for the region's underserved population out of an aging government building in downtown Fayetteville. Over the years, the space had become cramped and run-down. At the end of its lease agreement in 2013, the nonprofit decided to relocate to a spartan 10,000-square-foot split-face concrete-block building. The facility, part of a larger 20-acre medical campus, previously housed an exercise and physical- rehabilitation center for the elderly.

In the new building, the client sought to double the number of medical exam rooms and the number of chairs in its dental clinic, in addition to having a pharmacy, community meeting room, and administrative areas. Marlon Blackwell Architect tries to provide one pro bono schematic design every year. The timing was just right when the medical center approached the firm about the project. “Architecture can provide a sense of dignity to an experience,” notes Blackwell. With this in mind, the architects chose to focus on the public spaces. One of their first challenges was to transform the building's dark interior so as to convey a sense of vibrancy and vitality. “I kept imagining a tunnel of light down the central axis of the building, so that as soon as you enter you feel a sense of wellness,” says Meryati Johari Blackwell, a principal at Marlon Blackwell Architect (and Marlon's wife).

The scheme emphasizes the generous central corridor that bisects the symmetrical H-shape floor plan. On both sides of this axis, the architects placed two red oak–lined waiting rooms or “pods” that resemble open wooden boxes turned on their sides. Clerestory windows, once obscured by HVAC ducts, let in generous daylight. The focal point of this passageway is a frameless glass meeting room at the south end of the building.

This bifurcated plan neatly accommodates the two primary program elements, with medical examination rooms on one side of the central corridor and a dental clinic on the other. The wall and ceiling surfaces are white except in the wood waiting areas, which creates a balance between the intimate pods and the bright, tall circulation space.

The architects made few alterations to the existing facade, though they inserted windows along the east and west sides to bring daylight into the treatment areas. The only other addition to the exterior is a cantilevered canopy and glass vestibule at the entrance.

As with any project for a nonprofit dependent on grants and donors, keeping costs low was key. The team hunted down inexpensive finishes that fit their desired material palette. Many of them, such as plastic laminates, came from manufacturers' overruns. For the waiting areas, the contractor located a deal on locally sourced red oak that was prefinished, which saved the labor costs of sanding and coating the material on walls and ceilings.

“The clinic is about half the cost per square foot of other medical facilities we've done in the area,” says Ryan Bennet, vice president of SSI, the contractor for the project. The pro bono work of the architects and SSI helped keep costs at around $70 per square foot.

The new health-care center is a study in making use of simple geometries and modest materials to create beautiful, functional architecture. “Formal logic isn't complete without material logic,” Blackwell notes. And the facility seems to have a positive effect on its users: the clients treat the place with more respect than the dilapidated former clinic, says executive director Monika Fischer-Massie.

Having a strong set of design principles, Blackwell adds, allows the architect to shape rather than be controlled by circumstance. These principles, as applied at the Northwest Arkansas Free Medical Center, serve as evidence that much can be made from humble beginnings.


Monika Fischer-Massie, MBA, Ph.D
Executive Director
Northwest Arkansas Free Health Center

Northwest Arkansas Free Health Center

Marlon Blackwell Architect
217 E. Dickson St., Suite 104
Fayetteville, AR  72704
p. 479-973-9121
e. info@marlonblackwell.com

Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Marlon Blackwell, FAIA 
  Principal In Charge
Meryati Johari Blackwell, Associate AIA, NCIDQ 28822, ASID, LEED AP BD+C
  Principal, Project Director
William Burks, Associate AIA 
  Project Manager

Justin Hershberger, Associate AIA
Heather MacArthur, Associate AIA
Bradford Payne, Associate AIA

Interior designer: 
Meryati Johari Blackwell, Associate AIA, NCIDQ 28822, ASID, LEED AP BD+C

Myers Beatty Engineering (Structural)
2411 Fayetteville RD, Suite B
Van Buren, AR 72956

HP Engineering (MEP)
1800 South 52 Street, Suite 400
Rodgers, Arkansas 72758

General contractor:
SSI, Inc.
400 Jean Mary Ave, Springdale, AR 72762
(479) 361-5857

Timothy Hursley
1911 West Markham
Little Rock, Arkansas


9,700 square feet

Project cost:

$630,000 square feet

Completion date:

January 2013



Structural system
Custom steel covered entry canopy: Fig Tree Inc. Structural Steel Fabrication and Manufacturing

Exterior cladding
Exterior wall cladding; existing split face CMU wall throughout.

Custom steel window boxes: Fig Tree Inc. Structural Steel Fabrication and Manufacturing

Storefront Windows and doors: Tubelite

All roofing existing.

Storefront Windows and doors: Tubelite 1400 Series Flush Glaze

Custom steel window boxes: Fig Tree Inc. Structural Steel Fabrication and Manufacturing

All Glass-insulated and tempered:  Viracon. Installer: Quality Glass and Mirror Inc.

Entrances: Tubelite

Wood doors: Marshfield

Hollow metal door frames:  Ceco Door, Assa Abloy

Aluminum door frames:  Tubelite

Locksets: Rockwood, Von Duprin, and CR Laurence.

Closers: LCN

Overhead stop: Glynn-Jo

Kick plate, cylinder, wall stop, locks and silencer: Hager

Key Cabinet: LundEqui

Pulls: Rockwood

Cabinet Hardware: Blum

Interior finishes
Restroom Specialties: Bradley

Cabinetwork and custom woodwork: Custom designed by Marlon Blackwell Architect, fabrication by Kitchen Distributors Inc.

Fire Extinguisher Cabinets: JL Industries

Paints and stains: Sherwin Williams,

Acoustic Ceiling tile: Dune by Armstrong,

All Millwork: custom design by Marlon Blackwell Architect, fabrication by: Kitchen Distributor Inc.

Plastic laminate: Nevamar

Resilient flooring: Centiva Vinyl tiles

Bathroom Tiles: American Olean, Infusion

Carpet: Tandus Flooring (Aftermath ER 3),

Entry Mat: Mats Inc Ultra Track

Wood strip Flooring: Arkansas red oak.

All furniture: Existing and  reused.

Cooper Lighting

Bathroom sinks: Decolav
Bathroom faucets: Symmons Symmetrix
Drinking fountain: Elkay
Kitchenette Sinks: Elkay
Kitchen faucets: Symmons Vella
Exam room Faucets: Symmons Symmetrix
Shower systems: AccessaBath
Urinal: American Standard
Toilets: American Standard
Water closet flush o meter valve: Sloan
Utility sink: Eagle Group
Janitor faucets: T&S Brass and Bronze Works Inc.