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WGP Architects on designing better care homes for people with dementia

Words:
Isabelle Priest

With the number of people living with dementia in the UK set to exceed a million, WGP is hoping to help tackle the dearth of high-quality care homes with a recently completed development in Southwark and two more in planning in Northamptonshire and Suffolk

The entrance portico at WGP Architects' proposed care home scheme for Haverhill in Suffolk.
The entrance portico at WGP Architects' proposed care home scheme for Haverhill in Suffolk. Credit: WGP Architects

‘Why can’t care homes look more like this?’ was the question put by the managing director of care home developer and operator Country Court Care to one of the co-partners of WGP Architects while working out at Core Collective, the high-end gym the practice has designed in Kensington. The gym is stylish with a series of dynamic spaces and a focus on wellness. Country Court was midway through rebuilding a care home in Burgess Park in the London Borough of Southwark, and invited WGP to take a look at the designs with a view to making the project more attractive and contemporary.

The project is a mixed care home, incorporating residential care with caring for people with advanced dementia and nursing needs. There are an estimated 944,000 people living with dementia in the UK and this figure is expected to surpass 1 million by 2025. Caring for people living with dementia can be complex, characterised by physical, mental and cognitive needs. Yet families and caregivers looking for a care home can often struggle to find the appropriate type and levels of care and facilities.

‘Later living has more advanced schemes with fine examples and big names,’ explains WGP director James Potter. The field is evolving continuously but progressive examples of care homes for dementia are mostly limited to overseas.

Hogeweyk in Weesp, the Netherlands, has pioneered a well-known approach to caring for people with dementia. Opened in 2009 and designed by Molenaar&Bol&VanDillen, the site is a village, complete with a town square, supermarket, hairdressers, theatre, pub, café-restaurant and 25 ‘houses’ that each accommodates six or seven people, grouped according to socio-cultural background. Danish practice NORD Architects has just completed a similar village for people living with dementia in Dax, south-west France. The project is the first dementia village of its kind in France, and it is laid out to reference the design of Dax’s old town with a market square and covered arcades as well as houses. Woodside in Warwick, designed by local firm Robothams Architects, is one of the only care homes in the UK that models itself on these, containing shops and resident houses.

Yet WGP believes there is a lot of opportunity for care home design. ‘They are fairly unique projects,’ says Potter. ‘They need to be enticing to visitors, and assist residents [ranging from those] who are relatively well-abled to those living with dementia. Good design can make them easier to manage and use for residents, staff and family. We try to make the care homes good experiences for everyone coming into contact with the buildings.’

During the design process of the Burgess Park home, members of the team enrolled on a course at Stirling University on how to design for people living with dementia. The practice has designed two more schemes since, currently in planning. But it is still a hard sector in which to find clients, with perhaps not enough emphasis on innovation. Here we look at some of the themes and features WGP has embraced during its short time working in the sector.

  • The mixed care home WGP designed for Burgess Park, London.
    The mixed care home WGP designed for Burgess Park, London. Credit: Anthony Coleman
  • The project breaks down the five-storey building into more manageable masses based on Georgian townhouse proportions.
    The project breaks down the five-storey building into more manageable masses based on Georgian townhouse proportions. Credit: Anthony Coleman
  • The previously proposed chamfered corner on the block has been squared off using additional terraces at each level, creating additional recreational outdoor space for residents.
    The previously proposed chamfered corner on the block has been squared off using additional terraces at each level, creating additional recreational outdoor space for residents. Credit: Anthony Coleman
  • WGP introduced a huge secure rooftop garden for residents and visitors to enjoy views over London.
    WGP introduced a huge secure rooftop garden for residents and visitors to enjoy views over London. Credit: Anthony Coleman
  • One of the double-height lounges at WGP's care home design in Burgess Park.
    One of the double-height lounges at WGP's care home design in Burgess Park. Credit: Anthony Coleman
  • Another of the double-height lounges. The practice introduced more cut-throughs, but did so carefully to keep residents secure and undisturbed.
    Another of the double-height lounges. The practice introduced more cut-throughs, but did so carefully to keep residents secure and undisturbed. Credit: Anthony Coleman
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Burgess Park, south London

For its debut design within the sector, WGP went ‘full throttle’ at redesigning the existing scheme with a contemporary approach. To simplify the planning process, the practice retained the proposed massing but reworked the facades and floorplans. The scheme is on a corner site of a previous 1960s care home. There is a James Stirling-designed school opposite and neighbouring Georgian squares and terraces, which the project references by breaking down the massing into townhouse domestic proportions and rhythm.

The building contains 100 bedrooms over five floors. WGP removed the chamfered corner and many of the walls that created smaller spaces. It also made a feature of the entrance, introducing a double-height space which is flexible as an activity space for residents. The team also introduced more noticeable cut-throughs between wings and floors with other double-height spaces in lounges, although they are carefully controlled using internal glazing for safety and noise reduction. The ground floor is for residential care, the first floor is for nursing care for people with physical support requirements, the second floor is for people with dementia and the third floor is for people with dementia and nursing needs.

‘The challenge is how to safeguard and care for the more vulnerable people without it feeling like a prison,’ explains Potter. The main dining space is at the corner of the building at each level and opens onto a terrace. Then there are day spaces in different variations. The redesign also wanted residents to benefit from a more secure garden area at the top with fantastic views over south London and 1.8m-high glass screening for safety.

Dementia-specific features also include simple internal and external circulation with circular routes that are legible and enable wandering, featuriong visual stimuli at corners and the ends of corridors. ‘They can’t be challenging spaces to read, but not boring either,’ says Potter. The team also worked with an interior designer on space planning, including how to get a hoist into all areas, big and small, which are required to provide diverse environments for people with different needs. However, some aspects the practice wanted to incorporate, including more exposed services and track lighting, were rejected by the Quality Care Commission on the basis that dust would lead to greater maintenance requirements.

  • Road-side view of The Olive Grove care home proposed by Country Court Care near Oundle, Northamptonshire.
    Road-side view of The Olive Grove care home proposed by Country Court Care near Oundle, Northamptonshire. Credit: WGP Architects
  • The Olive Grove incorporates a dementia-specific care home onto part of the site of a garden nursery. The café links the two uses.
    The Olive Grove incorporates a dementia-specific care home onto part of the site of a garden nursery. The café links the two uses. Credit: WGP Architects
  • WGP's design centres on a courtyard, allowing circular routes around the building.
    WGP's design centres on a courtyard, allowing circular routes around the building. Credit: WGP Architects
  • WGP's designs for the bedrooms are more contemporary with a hotel feel.
    WGP's designs for the bedrooms are more contemporary with a hotel feel. Credit: WGP Architects
  • Roof plan, The Olive Grove, designed by WGP Architects.
    Roof plan, The Olive Grove, designed by WGP Architects. Credit: WGP Architects
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The Olive Grove, Northamptonshire

The Olive Grove is a proposed 60-bedroom dementia-specific care home 3km from Oundle in Northamptonshire, currently in planning. The site is owned by a garden nursery which experienced a drop in footfall during the pandemic. WGP’s proposal reduces the size of the nursery, adding a care home to the site, which would share some facilities and benefit from the dual use. A café would be open to the public and for visits with residents, providing the link between the two uses, and creating a sense of community within a safe setting.

The care home has two levels with a courtyard in the centre and is surrounded by gardens, open fields and the nursery itself. Bedrooms are organised around operational units of six-to-eight-bedroom loops, each sharing a communal living space, to create a more relatable domestic scale. This helps reduce noise and overactivity, which can be disorienting and cause anxiety among people with dementia. Bedrooms look outwards onto rural views, whereas social spaces open onto the courtyards, with terraces and patios for residents to sit.

For cost-efficiency, the construction is of basic loadbearing masonry, beam and block with pigmented blockwork. The exterior is clad with polycarbonate for privacy and timber cladding that will silver as well as aiding solar shading. Each change in mass has a different colour tone to help with wayfinding and identification. This happens at several different scales throughout the building, including bedroom doors and corridors.

  • The proposed Haverhill care home, designed by WGP Architects, is primarily clad in timber to reference its wooded setting.
    The proposed Haverhill care home, designed by WGP Architects, is primarily clad in timber to reference its wooded setting. Credit: WGP Architects
  • WGP's design minimises construction cost by working with existing changes in level, which helps create smaller volumes.
    WGP's design minimises construction cost by working with existing changes in level, which helps create smaller volumes. Credit: WGP Architects
  • Contrasting colours in the bedrooms help residents identify the doorway, bathroom and wardrobe as well as create a homely feel.
    Contrasting colours in the bedrooms help residents identify the doorway, bathroom and wardrobe as well as create a homely feel. Credit: WGP Architects
  • View of one the proposed bedrooms, designed by WGP Architects, at Burgess Park.
    View of one the proposed bedrooms, designed by WGP Architects, at Burgess Park. Credit: WGP Architects
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Haverhill, Suffolk

Haverhill is another 60-bedroom care home that is in planning. It is proposed for a long, narrow, sloping semi-rural site in Suffolk, formerly occupied by a hotel. The care home is not dementia-specific, but WGP has applied many of the same features.

The project takes much of its inspiration from the surrounding woodland with an emphasis on biophilic design. However, like the Olive Grove, the project is designed to minimise construction costs and focus on providing high-quality spaces and finishes, with this project aiming at below £3,000/m2. For example, the building is divided into blocks that step down the slope, minimising the amount of spoil that needs to be removed from the site. This naturally breaks down the interiors into smaller units. The exterior is clad using timber, with a timber porte cochère and columns to create a soft entrance that plants can grow up. Gardens are landscaped around a nature trail. The roof is a huge, secure, level-access roof garden with pergola and views.

Inside, there is a lounge or resting space at the end of every corridor. ‘There is nothing worse than a dead-end’, explains Potter. ‘You don’t want that sense of enclosure. We wanted to encourage people to gather in activity spaces.’ Lounge spaces open onto the woodland. Bedroom doors are staggered to avoid people walking straight across into other bedrooms. Residents’ doors are painted in distinctive colours to stand out, while service doors are painted the same as the walls.

 

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