Proactive Questioning Leads to Efficient Design

By Katie Lambert

A Proactive Approach to Programming

Jewish Child and Family Services (JCFS) is a partner agency to Jewish United Fund in serving the Chicagoland community. Along with many other services, they offer therapy and support to children and adults diagnosed with developmental disabilities. Generous donors envisioned a facility dedicated to serving this clientele, and the agency hired OKW to design and execute the resulting building, the Cooper Center.

The combination of a tight budget and the specificities of the user group required our programming effort to yield more than simple spreadsheets. This building was the first time that five groups within the agency would co-exist. The groups’ wide-ranging services range from providing therapeutic nursery school to children with autism spectrum disorder to contributing mentoring and respite to full-time caregivers.


From a programmatic stand-point, finding a way to reconcile the building users’ space needs in an efficient way was critical to the success of the project.  JCFS approached our team estimating that the building would be 20,000 SF. OKW wanted to maximize the Owner’s limited budget and therefore actively tried to limit the programmed area, initially by focusing on the five clinical groups’ requirements. Our general methodology was to question all assumptions. After in-depth interviews with each of the groups, we created hypothetical calendars depicting the described needs in effort to find overlap between the requested spaces. The ability to condense spaces by asking users to share areas that had previously been dedicated significantly reduced the program area, bringing us closer to the final 16,000 SF footprint.

The other major program aspect targeted for space reduction was the administrative component. Within the agency, professionals had previously worked in almost exclusively private or shared offices. When we suggested that they consider switching a large percentage of employees to work in workstations, they explained the limitations of the privacy of their work. Based on HIPAA laws, much of their work and many of their conversations can’t be audible to non-agency employees. Our design team saw this as a challenge, but not a deterrent. We strategically planned the circulation of the building around the notion that there were three major zones within the building: public, clinical, administrative. Unlike other JCFS buildings, the administrative wing is essentially not part of public circulation, thereby allowing an open office plan to function legally and effectively.


Square footage analytics were only part of our programming phase; we considered a qualitative analysis to be equally critical. Designing for people with developmental disabilities introduces a broader set of issues important to the functional success of the building. To translate the user specificities into the design, our team extensively researched spatial theories as they relate to children and adults with developmental disabilities before and throughout the process. We discovered several guiding principles:

  • Be cautious with volume. A space should feel comfortable, not overwhelming. The resulting design of our lobby works within a modest envelope and incorporates a lowered soffit at its center.
  • Use wayfinding as a design element. One of the most important aspects of the building is for a therapist to be able to successfully guide clientele through the building with limited distraction. The design of the Cooper Center’s clinical wing features intentionally colored doors and transoms meant to showcase points of entry. The notion of wayfinding also works its way into the toilet rooms: zones within the bathrooms (i.e. toilet, lavatory, etc) are designated with a subtly colored tile intended to indicate an activity zone. This encourages simple movement through the bathroom with limited opportunity for distraction.
  • Use soothing colors. Our research and conversations with the therapists led to the conclusion that muted aquatic colors (seafoam green, pale blue) are most soothing. One of the greatest design compliments we’ve received since the building opened was to have a client’s parent request the paint specifications so that they could incorporate a similarly soothing experience into their own home.

The Cooper Center has now been open to the public for over one year. Some of the groups occupying the building have experienced growing pains as they’ve adjusted to sharing space and learning to use the building. But, the majority of changes have been incredible to watch: having the flexible spaces that the Cooper Center features has enabled JCFS to expand its reach further into the community and to collaborate with like-minded organizations in wonderful new ways. Last year alone, the building hosted events as disparate as a prom for their therapeutic high school and a Passover sedar for adults with developmental disabilities. We look forward to watching JCFS continue to serve the community and are so proud to have been their partner on this effort.



The Abe & Ida Cooper Center won a CBC Merit Award for New Construction Under $15 Million. The Chicago Building Congress is considered the cornerstone of the building industry in Chicago. Judging through a holistic set of criteria, the awards acknowledge the role our buildings play in the larger community. The Cooper Center touches lives through the services it provides, and the building’s architecture plays a critical role in its ability to do so.