Aged care needs to feel good. The identity, community, and amenity values embodied in one’s own home are powerful disincentives to joining aged care facilities, skewing their populations to those who lack the choice. This lack of diversity in turn shapes the character of those facilities – from the degree of medical/institutionalisation embodied in their built forms, to the nature and range of leisure activities that are accommodated.
Our priority was to understand these social dynamics and economic drivers, through research, observing aged care facilities in operation, and interviewing staff and residents in Australia and overseas.
A not-for-profit, German Catholic community provider of aged care approached us with a brief to build Independent Living Units (retirement village) alongside a Residential Aged Care facility (nursing home). The project would also update an existing hostel and nursing home and include a chapel as a central community focal point.
We generally favour evidence-based design. However there is little objective information available on design for aged care. Little post occupancy evaluation is available, so the majority of books and articles are anecdotal; or restricted to anticipated design benefits.
Operating an aged care facility can cost 20-40 per cent of its capital cost per annum, with staffing a significant component of this cost. We spent time observing operations - and trailing staff in the existing facility, interviewing staff and residents; and understanding regulations.
We soon observed that the experience of staff was central to ensuring the experience of aged residents was a good one. Caring roles are physically taxing, emotionally demanding, and often stressful. Designing for staff wellbeing, for instance through efficient circulation and well-placed spaces for storing frequently-used resident handling equipment - was critical to their support of resident wellbeing. Pleasant working spaces that made staff feel valued were as important as those for residents.
Our research also took us to aged care facilities in Europe, where an expectation of greater freedom for residents contributed to their wellbeing through continued integration in community activities. It led us to an appreciation of the physical, psychological and cognitive benefits of activities such as gardening, continuous learning and of continuing to use manual skills and social capacities gained over a lifetime.
We also came to appreciate the importance for mobility-restricted residents of design that brings the outside world to them. We designed to maximize the physical and mental benefits of natural light, views to vegetation, and visual access to community activities beyond their rooms.
Landscape and community
Seventy percent of the site’s land and existing facility is bordered by eucalypt forest parkland. This beautiful backdrop to the village comes with the need to provide fire vehicle access in case of a bushfire. A further opportunity for landscaping arises due to the bisection of the site by power lines which require open space beneath.
German culture, and existing residents’ love of gardening, means the existing facility is renowned for its manicured gardens. We valued these opportunities for residents to interact, remain physical and take pride in the shaping of their sheltered oasis of European style plantings within the wilder forest surrounds. For instance, it enables them to include seasonal and deciduous plants (which are uncommon in Australia).
To maximise physical and visual access to gardens and landscape, we situated an active spine through the site, with the main pedestrian thoroughfare flanked by common areas. Vehicle access is largely restricted to the perimeter where possible. Very few areas of the site lack direct views to outdoor gardens (mainly service rooms).
Varied common areas attached to the spine are support the village character of the facility with human-scale spaces that invite formation of social groups within the larger community. Some courtyards and gardens double as venues for larger gatherings, including social celebrations and programmatic offerings such as exercise classes. Common facilities are also intended to support and encourage purposeful activities consistent with a garden village, including a men’s shed, chicken run, hair salon, fish-pond and barbecue.
Development of 64 Independent Living Units. They are units for over 55’s and are designed to be adaptable to wheelchair users. The design encourages residents to be self-contained for as long as possible with the village being able to provide services such as meals and cleaning.
The design splits the apartments into two buildings becoming a gateway entry for the whole village. There are common meeting and function rooms, a gym, café and two studio apartments for visitor use.
Development of a 120 bed residential aged care centre. This has the central spine of common areas with four perpendicular residential wings and an administration wing. The design allows for intimate courtyard and distant views from all the individual rooms and common area. Lack of sunlight, and vitamin D, is a common issue in aged care and the rooms are designed to combat this with large glazed openings.
Colour, contrast, windows at the ends of corridors, signage and ‘memory boxes’, are used to assist the residents in wayfinding to the rooms and throughout the RACF.
Technology is proposed to improve both control of the space and communication. Voice operated devices such as Amazon Alexa can improve the feeling of connection and control for a resident. Voice control of blinds, lighting, music, A/C, TV and a phone connection give a sense of autonomy to a person confined to a bed.
Renovation of the existing nursing home to meet current standards. This will also include the conversion of an existing parking area to a chapel with a symbolic bell tower that will be the heart of the Village Square.
We are architects who believe you can improve the way people live through good design. We think that good design is functional, rational, sustainable, adaptable, innovative and joyful.
We enjoy the learning process and invest time in new building types. Current experience includes housing, apartments, offices, boarding houses, dental and medical centres, nightclubs and bars, interior fit-outs, child care, aged care, furniture, chapel and mortuary.