Planning NorthBay’s Healthy Future

Joelyn Gropp’s architectural background helps her keep NorthBay Healthcare on track to maximize patient care for today and beyond

Joelyn Gropp understands the importance of building strong foundations. She trained as an architect at Carnegie Mellon and launched her professional career in the field.

Although she’s now assistant vice president of real estate and facilities development at NorthBay Healthcare System (a nonprofit organization based in California), Gropp’s career began at Ratcliff Architects, where she specialized in healthcare, institutional, and educational facilities. It was during her time with Ratcliff when she chose to make healthcare her sole focus.

Even now, the architecture background comes in handy—particularly when hiring architects and contractors for NorthBay’s various real estate projects.

“It’s helpful to be able to understand the quality of what we’re getting,” Gropp says. “On occasion, when we run into an architect who feels they can’t solve something, I’ll get my papers out and do it myself.”

A more important by-product of her time as an architect, however, might be her ability to communicate. Gropp says she can explain architectural details in layman’s terms to executives and others outside her department. She also knows how to ensure that the architect and contractor stay on the same page throughout a project.

“Often, architects are seen as these high-minded designers who have their heads in clouds, and the contractor is the practical one,” she says. “You really need to make them a team by making sure they respect what each brings to the table.”

Before taking the NorthBay job in 2003, Gropp spent four years as the regional facilities planning and construction manager at Catholic Healthcare West, and two years as the principal architect at CPMC Sutter Health. At NorthBay, however, she had to build a new facility development department from scratch.

“We were growing as a system and really starting to build new buildings from the ground up,” she says. “It seemed like we needed to have a department that would put standards and a system together for delivering these buildings. We started talking about a department, and people got used to hearing about it.”

To start, Gropp compiled a list of prequalified contractors and architects. She also took a step back and looked at the brand perception that NorthBay leadership wanted to maintain, and how the design of its new buildings could support it. Soon thereafter, her department was born. That department now includes three managers, three maintenance techs, a project coordinator, and an executive assistant.

Gropp handles real estate development, the system’s capital construction program, and facility maintenance. She currently leads the $200 million expansion of the NorthBay Medical Center Hospital, as well as the development of the 110,000-square-foot Wellspring Fitness Center in Vaca Valley. When it opens later in 2016, the center will include a track, pool, weight training facilities, and offices, as well as a three-story, sunlight-filled lobby and the relocated NorthBay Cancer Center.

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The fitness center will also include a junior Olympic lap pool surrounded by tinted glass to let in natural light.
The fitness center will also include a junior Olympic lap pool surrounded by tinted glass to let in natural light.

“It’s going to be a game-changer in our industry,” Gropp says. “The idea is that someone who comes in to see a doctor on the clinic side can get a prescription for exercise and do it right here. We already have one doctor who is planning to meet her patients on the track and talk with them while they’re walking.”

She’s also enthusiastic about the system’s two-year master space plan, an effort to organize operations and space on the ambulatory side that will provide the best patient experience, backfill space vacated by two other projects, and develop a standard lean clinic module for consistent care.

“We’re trying to separate the patient flow from the back-of-the-house flow, similar to Disney’s on-stage/off-stage philosophy,” Gropp says. “When you can separate the two, it creates a more efficient working environment for employees and doctors and a calmer environment for the patient.”

Hovering above all this is a massive initiative to replace all the older parts of the hospital building by 2030.

“It’s difficult to stay relevant in an industry that changes so rapidly and where it takes so long to design and build a new facility,” she says. “The other challenge is consistency. When so much time goes by, leadership changes and architects change—and we want it all to look the same, but also up to date.”

It takes a solid vision to make sure all of these needs are met. Luckily for NorthBay Healthcare and its patients, Gropp has it.

TRADING SPACES: Q&A with Joelyn Gropp

Portrait: Ryan Bates
Portrait: Ryan Bates

You got your degree in architecture. What about that field interested you?
Originally, I was thinking of going into art in college. I applied to the art program and thought, “I won’t always feel creative. Maybe I should pick something with more technical aspects.” That’s why I picked architecture.

Are you glad you did?
It was a great decision. One of the things I like about it is that while I like the art form of a building, it’s something you can actually engage in, walk through, occupy, and have an experience. It’s a great artistic medium.

What led to your transition into the healthcare industry?
When I moved from New York to San Francisco, two architecture firms accepted me. One focused on housing. The other, Ratcliff Architects, focused on healthcare. I picked healthcare and I’m so glad I did. When the economy goes through cycles, there is always work in healthcare.