Designing for community, connection and sense of place

By James Kelly*
Monday, 09 November, 2020

Designing for community, connection and sense of place

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

Our industry has a big job ahead to shift negative perceptions about seniors’ communities and aged care arising from both the pandemic and the Royal Commission. Clearly change is required on many fronts, but progressive design is part of the solution. It’s a powerful tool for change because 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

Storytelling is fundamental to human experience, understanding and belonging. Stories are the lifeblood of connection. They allow us to empathise, learn and celebrate. They form the basis of memory, and are especially important as we age. The places and spaces we design can help foster engagement, experiences and, with that, wonderful stories.

As architects we approach design as a form of storytelling. We aim to capture the essence of people, place and character in everything we do. When we succeed in creating a variety of spaces that draw people in, make them want to linger and give them agency to use the space in different ways, residents spontaneously start to express their own creativity and tell their own stories through the way they use the spaces provided.

Giving residents agency to thrive

Estia Health is a seniors community we designed in Maroochydore, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Central to the design is a designated sensory and resident garden space. This wonderful area is literally shaped by residents’ choices about how they want to use the space. 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.

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

A simple design element like this offers residents ongoing agency, fosters their skills and interests, and creates space for new experiences and shared stories. Progressive design aims to encapsulate the identity of clients, their residents and their neighbourhood context, and create diverse spaces that genuinely connect people — with each other, their passions, their stories and their broader community. The best way to achieve this is through meaningful engagement with a broad mix of stakeholders.

Terry weeding from his chair at Estia Health Maroochydore. Credit: Scott Burrows

Engaging with stakeholders to find the stories that matter most

One of our company values is Listen First. We aim to truly understand our clients’ and users’ needs before responding in design terms. It’s an approach that permeates every conversation during the design process and is particularly important early on in the development of a brief and concept.

The best stakeholder engagement brings staff, residents and communities on the design journey and ensures the design defies stereotypes and reflects diverse people’s rituals, relationships and lifestyles. It helps all involved to identify what’s unique and worth celebrating about a project’s people, site and location.

Stakeholder engagement is not a linear process, nor a finite one. It evolves constantly, and when it’s done well it ensures designers hear and understand the needs of all. It’s this deep understanding that allows us to connect and create meaningful stories.

One of the starting points to stakeholder engagement is conversations with staff and the executive or development team. This is often where a project is conceived and its design parameters are developed. We always engage staff in physical, hands-on interpretation of briefing requirements — for example, setting up a prototype bedroom to test new lifting equipment we’re considering for the design or to see how potential joinery solutions might affect the circulation and functionality of the space. We also take staff on site tours through similar facilities to show them design options in action. I highly recommend this shared form of learning for any design process.

Engagement with staff includes prototyping new spaces and testing equipment under consideration.

Resident engagement is crucial too. We particularly love undertaking design idea sessions with residents because many of the best ideas come from the people who’ll be living in and enjoying these buildings, spaces and places. We ask open-ended questions such as: what do you like? What don’t you like? What would you love to have?

The answers help us maintain some of the simple pleasures most important to residents, eliminate any design ideas that aren’t working and be aspirational in our approach.

Stakeholder engagement with residents and staff drives design by capturing key aspirations and priorities.

Community consultation is central to any project’s success. We always look for ways to actively engage with local community groups, volunteer organisations and neighbours. The stakeholder engagement can take many forms: small group sessions, design workshops or open days where residents are invited in to learn about the design plans and ask questions. This is a great way to hear from a diverse group of people about their connection to the site.

By listening first we come to a shared understanding about what is important to the people involved, what makes them who they are and what their day-to-day pleasures are. This embeds a depth of thinking into a design approach that’s holistic, dynamic and site responsive, and creates integrated communities within communities.

This column 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.

*James Kelly is a Partner at ClarkeHopkinsClarke Architects, where he leads the Seniors Living & Care Sector. His team champions considered, holistic design and intergenerational communities offering diverse choices, higher quality and stronger community connections for seniors at all stages of life.

Main image caption: Terry watering his edibles at Estia Health Maroochydore.

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