AJ Thomas (Headshot credit: Corgan)
AJ Thomas is a healthcare sector leader — principal, at Corgan, (Phoenix).
In Healthcare Design’s Face Time Q+A, Thomas shares what lead him to a career in healthcare design, why it’s important to ask questions on projects, and what he considers his superpower trait.
What drew you to a career in healthcare design?
There were very few firms hiring in 2002 (the year I graduated with my master of architecture degree from The University of Texas at Arlington) after 9/11, but I happened to find an opening at HDR for a project coordinator in healthcare architecture. So while I didn’t start my career seeking healthcare design as a focus, my decision to stay in this sector for more than 20 years has been very intentional. The ability to combine my passion for creativity with critical thinking skills was what first drew me to the profession. Now, it is the ability to have an impact in the communities we serve, improve outcomes through design, and elevate the healing environment.
What was your first healthcare project?
Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center (now Baylor Scott & White Medical Center) in Waco, Texas, from 2004-2007. I was the designer for the women and children’s specialty hospital that adjoined the main hospital.
What lesson from that project do you still carry with you today?
Ask questions. This might seem too simple, but it has helped me and the clients we serve. As leaders, we should not assume but constantly ask questions, from macro (Why is the project necessary?) to micro (What specific need will this project address?). I also try my best to be engaged and an active listener, which is key to truly understanding the problem. Better questions can lead to better team performance, and they create a foundation of trust, which leads to improved team engagement, innovation, and results. Curiosity is my superpower.
Three healthcare design projects and your role
Prescott Cancer Center (Photo credit: Corgan)
1 Arizona Oncology, Prescott, Ariz., principal-in-charge.
2 Copper Sky Medical Campus, City of Maricopa, Ariz., principal-in-charge.
3 Medical City, Mental Health and Wellness, Fort Worth, Texas, principal-in-charge.
What do you like best about working in healthcare design?
It’s not just a profession; it’s a commitment to a higher purpose, where the impact of your designs extends far beyond the physical structures.
What challenges about your work keep you up at night?
If I were to pick my top challenge, it would be “How can we drive change in an industry that is traditionally averse to change?” The healthcare sector has been one of the slowest adapters to change. I frequently say that, in this day of artificial intelligence, we as a healthcare industry have collectively managed to keep the fax machine alive.
An unexpected item on your desk
The sheer volume of architectural magazines. My staff teases me for being a borderline hoarder. This is a carry-over from my upbringing in Mumbai, India. Getting an architectural magazine was like finding gold, so now I have a hard time throwing them away or recycling them.
(Photo credit: AJ Thomas)
Outside the office, we’ll likely find you …
Engaged in some activity that involves two boys, aged 13 and 16, and my wife. These include boys’ basketball games, hiking in Arizona, church activities, or playing pickleball.
Dog or cat?
Coffee or tea?
Both. I start my day at home with a cup of “pulled tea,” which involves pouring the tea back and forth from one mug into the other at least four times so that air can mix with the liquid and create a foamy head. (My wife makes the best!) Once I reach the office, it’s black coffee, and then I wind down for the day with an afternoon cup of green tea. My Starbucks drink is a dirty Chai with a shot of espresso (which is, in fact, coffee and tea).
Morning person or night owl?
Night owl. I think this is a carryover from late studio nights in architecture school.
Fashion trend you think should make a comeback
Dress-up airport fashion of the 1960s.
How did you make your first dollar?
Working for my father during summer break in high school at a print/copy shop. The pay wasn’t much but the lessons learned in business and customer retention were priceless.
Your hidden talent
Picking stocks. I used to trade stocks when I was 16 years old, and this talent didn’t go unnoticed by my undergraduate architecture professors. I successfully managed stock portfolios for my professors and some of my classmates joked that this was the reason for my good grades.
If you weren’t an architect, you would be…
Day trader on Wall Street.
Quote “Onward and upward.”—My dad. I’m pretty sure that my father was not the author of this quote, but this was his life motto, and this has resonated throughout my life. Life is too short to have regrets and we must move forward with a goal of continued self-improvement.
Movie character “James Bond,” portrayed by various actors over the years. I’m a sucker for thriller plots with undertones of heists, cool tech gadgets, and high-stakes missions.
Show to binge watch “Breaking Bad.” The plot is brilliant, and the characters are phenomenal! The show was shot in Albuquerque, N.M., and we lived there for 5 years during my wife’s residency and fellowship at The University of New Mexico School of Medicine. I’m constantly trying to figure out if I know the filming locations of the scenes.
Weekend activity I travel a lot for work so I’m intentional in keeping the weekends for my family.
Band/musical artist Mostly Christian bands and artists because I play the piano in church and I’m always learning a thing or two on how music influences the worship service.
Guilty pleasure McDonald’s “Dollar Menu,” especially the McChicken, partly because it’s fried chicken and partly because of the portion sizing. I can finish the sandwich for a change
Snack when you travel Salted banana chips. I love salty foods, much to the disdain of my cardiologist.
Sport This has evolved over the years, from cricket to American football to basketball, and now, pickleball. My boys make fun of me, saying “I’m now officially old,” as they regard pickleball to be an old person’s game.
Team I flip between the Dallas Cowboys (Dallas is where I first landed and home to my extended family) and the Arizona Cardinals (I now live in Phoenix).
Book “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” by Dale Carnegie. “WOO” (winning over others) is one of my strengths, and the principles of it that are covered in this 100-year-old book are something that I practice every day.
City to visit Dubai. This is such an over-the-top, superlative-filled laboratory for architects and designers. If you can imagine it, they will build it here.