Innovative design embraces residents’ diversity, defies ageism, and embeds community and sense of place, writes James Kelly.

Our industry has a big job ahead shifting negative perceptions about seniors’ communities and aged care, and progressive design is part of the solution.  Last year the royal commission laid bare systemic failures and underlying societal problems like ageism and undervaluing care professions.

This year it’s been the catastrophic impacts of COVID-19. Obviously change is required on many fronts, but future-focussed design is a powerful tool for change. It helps create vibrant, integrated communities that embrace residents’ diversity, defy ageist stereotypes, embed community connections and create a genuine sense of place.

Design as storytelling

Varied spaces can draw people in, encourage them to linger, and give them agency to use as they see fit. Image credit Scott Burrows

Storytelling is fundamental to human experience, understanding and connection. Our stories help us empathise, learn and celebrate, form the basis of memory, and are especially important as we age.

We approach design as a form of storytelling and aim to capture the essence of people, place and character. If physical environments are generic or too prescriptive they stifle people’s individuality. When we offer a variety a spaces that draw people in, make them want to linger, and give them agency to use as they see fit, we see residents spontaneously express their own creativity.

Giving residents agency to thrive

Terry weeding from his chair at Estia Health Maroochydore. Image credit Scott Burrows

I’ve seen this first-hand recently at Estia Health’s seniors community we designed in Maroochydore on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Central to the design is a designated sensory and resident garden space – an area quite literally shaped by residents’ choices about how they want to use it.

One resident, Terry, is an incredible green thumb. He’s created a spectacular edible garden with herbs, fruit and veggies that are so abundant he now supplies produce to the catering team for use in residents’ meals.

The outcome of Terry’s fantastic work is shared meals eaten in a variety of settings throughout the facility. This allows everyone to connect with each other and the outdoor environment, and to enjoy the fruits of Terry’s labour.

Engaging with stakeholders to find the stories that matter most

James Kelly

Good design encapsulates the identity of clients, residents and neighbourhoods and is driven by meaningful engagement with a broad mix of stakeholders. It’s not a linear or finite process.

It permeates every conversation with staff, residents and communities and involves bringing them on the journey and identifying what’s unique and worth celebrating about a project’s people, relationships, rituals, site and location.

One starting point is conversations with staff and the executive or development team to help define the brief and concept and test ideas. For example we’ll set up a prototype bedroom to test new lifting equipment or joinery we’re considering, and tour staff through similar facilities to show design options in action.

Resident engagement often yields the best ideas through open-ended questions about likes, dislikes and things they’d love to have. Community consultation with local groups, volunteer organisations and neighbours is paramount too. It can take many forms, such as small group sessions, design workshops, or open days, to provide a great way to hear from diverse groups about their connection to site.

Creating communities within communities

A place analysis at The Bays, Hastings, helps capture the design narrative and architectural response

Good design also takes narrative cues from a project’s location. At The Bays in Hastings, Victoria, our team drew on site’s strong connection to Western Port Bay with a design story inspired by the sea, local industry, and the tidal wetlands in between. The result is built form that’s distinct but fits comfortably into its streetscape.

Future-focussed designers always look for opportunities to strengthen connections with surrounding communities. Our practice has developed a methodology called Creating Vibrant Communities that captures the tangible and intangible elements that make a place great for clients, users and neighbourhoods alike.

For example at Mayflower, a seniors living and aged care community we’re designing in Keilor, Melbourne, we discovered locals rely on the site, which is a former school, to reach a nearby park. The park is well loved for recreation and socialising in a neighbourhood quite a distance from town centre amenities.

Our design offers an ungated community with active edges including fitness trails, walking paths and covered routes to the park to invite the community in as they make their way to the park. A mix of indoor and outdoor spaces including a community garden, cafe and town square encourage them to linger alongside Mayflower residents and visitors.

For developers operating at scale at state and national level it’s so important to remember the people and community you’re designing for. This creates far better projects, stronger communities and stories worth sharing.

James Kelly is partner at ClarkeHopkinsClarke Architects’ Seniors Living & Care Sector.

Main image: Terry watering his edibles at Estia Health Maroochydore. Image credit: Scott Burrows

This article is an edited version of a practical, how-to session aimed at non-designers presented at LASA’s Ten Days of Congress. View full presentation with case studies here.

A longer version of this article appears in the current edition of Australian Ageing Agenda magazine (Nov-Dec 2020).

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