Taking Care Through Design: Galt Health, Cambridge, Ontario

A modest family health clinic is designed—and crafted—with a palpable sense of care for patients and clinicians alike.

From the waiting area, patients pass through a rounded doorway to access the clinical care rooms. The facility’s waiting area and all of its clinical spaces are designed and placed for enjoying plentiful natural light.

PROJECT Galt Health, Cambridge, Ontario

ARCHITECT Jaliya Fonseka Studio

TEXT David T. Fortin

PHOTOS Riley Snelling

Spaces for healthcare present, in many ways, the ideal opportunity to explore an ethos of care through design—an approach that is grounded in being mindful of one’s intuitions and individual well-being, but also based in empathy and compassion for others. Since Tommy Douglas first introduced medicare to Saskatchewan in the 1950s, the idea of universal healthcare has arguably remained one of the most broadly embraced Canadian values. A society that sees access to basic health services as a human right is one that, ultimately, believes in a collective responsibility to care for each other. 

Yet the bedrock of universal healthcare—the family physician’s office—is often an uninspired space, wedged above pharmacies and into strip malls. It is rare for the designers of such clinics to earnestly embrace an ideology of care. Many, if not the majority, of family health clinics across the country have a bare minimum of design thinking invested into them, offering a series of sterilized and compartmentalized windowless patient rooms flanking equally utilitarian corridors. These kinds of spaces hardly inspire optimism for someone who is likely feeling vulnerable, or in at least somewhat of a compromised state. 

A wood reception desk greets clients at the new health clinic in Galt, Ontario.

Jaliya Fonseka has designed a clinic for Galt Health Centre in downtown Cambridge, Ontario, that is clearly an exception. Upon entering the space, there is immediately a sense of warmth, framed by its humble material palette and careful attention to light. But as one spends more time in the clinic, its carefully composed arrangements become increasingly evident. Everything about the project is modest: its budget, its size, its location off the atrium of a standard office building, its materiality. And yet, its thoughtful design skillfully creates a place where one instantly feels uplifted. 

The patient rooms are shaped with a house-like ceiling, and include translucent glazing to the daylit corridor.

The organization of the project emerged from Fonseka’s consultations with the clinic’s medical professionals and staff, as well as community members, to ensure their insights were foundational to the design. This led to a focus on access to daylight, views, and a sense of openness. Despite the efficient and compact use of space, the exposed wood-fin ceiling, with utilities set between and behind the slats, allows for a surprisingly generous sense of volume. The plan, resulting from a thorough study of the users’ daily activities and movement patterns, positions the patient rooms in a central block, accessed along the building’s exterior wall. This allows daylight to flood the hall, extending into the reception and waiting areas through carefully arranged openings. A circulation loop links the patient corridor to the staff working areas, allowing for a certain fluidity and ease of movement. Strategic curved walls and arches allow natural light to softly guide movement throughout the project. Inside the patient rooms, simple pitched roof ceilings bring a sense of domestic familiarity and added volume, while translucent glazing creates planes of natural daylight.

Wood slat ceilings and rounded doorways give the clinic a comfortable, domestic sensibility.

Perhaps the most defining attribute of the project is its wood millwork. Vertical wood fins, made of standard dimensional lumber, are positioned thoughtfully to maximize light while offering a sense of enclosure and privacy from certain angles. They are composed to strategically break up and contain spaces at the same time. Meanwhile, wood ceiling fins and a custom-built 35-metre-long plywood bench tie the clinic’s various areas together at the perimeter. 

A long wooden bench provides an inviting opportunity for patients and staff to sit and rest.

In this project, the use of wood is about more than just its composition. All of the wood was locally sourced and milled on-site. It was finished with natural and renewable raw materials—a mix of soybean oil, sunflower oil, thistle oil, carnauba wax, and candelilla wax. Perhaps most impressively, Fonseka constructed the millwork himself, by hand, acting also as the general contractor for the project. The personal commitment to craft can be sensed at all levels. In a profession that seems like it is constantly challenged by diminishing budgets and timelines, it is easy—and most often necessary—to prioritize efficiency in billable hours, material sourcing, and constructability. But in the frenzy of such means of production, it is easy to forget the importance of sometimes slowing down and taking care of the process.

A continuous hallway loops the clinic, facilitating ease of movement for staff.

Nowadays, whenever I am forced to slow down and sit with my family in the waiting room at the Galt Health Centre, I can’t help but sense the personal investment and careful intentions for the project. Despite the discomfort that we may be feeling, the clinic offers a sense of respite, with the sun filtering through Fonseka’s hand-crafted wood fins. It serves as an important reminder of how a quiet and empathetic approach to design can indeed be powerful and uplifting, even in the most humble of places.

David T. Fortin is a Professor at the University of Waterloo and Principal Architect of David T Fortin Architect. His research and practice focus on concepts of home and alienation, and the structural impact that colonization and commodification have on these conditions, with particular interest in how design can instead embed relationality—between humans and more-than-humans—as its first priority.


CLIENT Gheriani Medicine Professional | ARCHITECT TEAM Jaliya Fonseka, Walter Bettio, Deni Papetti | STRUCTURAL | MECHANICAL CONSULTANT Sopes Engineering | MECHANICAL CONTRACTOR Sharpline HVAC | ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR Spark Power Corp.  | BUILDING SUPERVISOR / GENERAL CONTRACTOR  Jaliya Fonseka | CUSTOM MILLWORK AND FABRICATION Jaliya Fonseka, Bradley Paddock, Carrie Paddock | METAL FABRICATION Rees Metal Design and Fabrication | AREA 246 m2 | BUDGET Withheld | COMPLETION Fall 2023

As appeared in the June 2024 issue of Canadian Architect magazine