Southern Ellis, AIA
Ellis is an architect and senior medical planner at HKS, a Dallas-based firm. He also is an adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Arlington where he leads the Design for Health graduate studio. Ellis is a board member of the AIA Academy of Architecture for Health , heads the HKS Xchange Fellowship, and was the 2011 HKS Health Fellow. He earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental design and a master’s in architecture from Texas A&M University, where his thesis project involved designing and building a hospital in a remote village in Tanzania.
What inspired you to volunteer with an AIA Knowledge Community?
Coming out of college I was very passionate about health design specifically, and wanted to find a community of people who shared that passion. The AIA Academy of Architecture for Health Knowledge Community was a place for me to grow alongside my peers, meet icons and pioneers within this particular sphere of design, and volunteer.
What’s the most inspiring experience you’ve had as a Knowledge Community volunteer?
During the pandemic, health was pushed to the forefront of every design conversation. Being on the board of the academy in 2020, we had a chance to help equip architects and the design community with tools to navigate the pandemic. Moving quickly, we had teams documenting and distributing information in real time about best practices and ideas for dealing with COVID-19, from temporary testing to facility retrofits. Facilities all over the country could use this open source information to help improve their response. It was amazing to see the team come together to make some things happen that really helped people.
Going to a school like Texas A&M, which has a robust health design program, I benefited from having great mentors in the field, but not everyone has had that experience. During my time volunteering with the academy, we created both a mentorship program and a next generation committee, focused on empowering and equipping the next generation of leaders in our field. It’s been inspiring to see young people and seasoned veterans—even icons of the industry—connect. We’re really trying to grow the field of health design and get younger people excited about it.
Volunteering with AIA gave me the chance to be a leader and grow as a leader when I didn’t necessarily have that role at work.
How has volunteering with AIA helped you in your work and career?
When I started volunteering early on in my career I was in more of a production role at work. Volunteering with AIA gave me the chance to be a leader and grow as a leader when I didn’t necessarily have that role at work. As I continue to gain more of a leadership role in my firm, AIA provides a place to send the young people I am working alongside. I know AIA will provide the resources they need to grow as health designers and leaders.
How does volunteering with AIA support the profession and your community?
The academy’s focus is education. The organization is trying to help architects grow in a very deep way. The Knowledge Communities, specifically, are connected to one another, so we hear about what’s happening in the field of justice facilities design or school facilities design. Volunteering gives you access to people who are very deep and passionate about their own sphere. That’s always rewarding.
Specifically in my community of South Dallas, which is one of the most underserved neighborhoods in the country, the things I’ve learned from being an academy volunteer have enhanced my knowledge about designing for health equity and justice. One project I recently worked on was for Parkland Hospital, which is the safety net hospital for Dallas County. They treat the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick. We created an outpatient clinic that brought together Parkland’s wide network of specialists in one building that was on a rapid transit line. The knowledge I gained from volunteering and being part of the academy helped us achieve our design mission, which was to build an accessible, dignified, sustainable, and beautiful place that could serve our community.
What would you say to someone who is considering whether to volunteer with an AIA Knowledge Community?
AIA Knowledge Communities are a big family of passionate people from across the country. There are thousands of us who get together several times a year and everyone’s desire is to improve the health environments we design and, like in a family, to help empower you. AIA Knowledge Communities also are pushing forward research, webinars, and training tools that will help a younger designer learn the nuances of their trade and grow as a leader.