Quality of life, not just ease of maintenance, should inform designs for supported housing, says Rory Olcayto
When a senior manager of one of the UK’s largest providers of supported housing looks upon a Peter Zumthor-designed care home in Switzerland with real enthusiasm and then claims there is ‘a poverty of imagination’ in the home-grown sector, you know a breakthrough of sorts has occurred.
This was just one of several key moments in our roundtable debate on supported housing, a sector set to grow but still neglected by architects – and by clients, who seem sadly resistant to design innovation.
An exchange between two of the roundtable architects was also significant. Angela Morrison of Quattro Design Architects appeared resigned to the fact that procurement in the sector results in schemes lacking finesse. But Walter Menteth of Walter Menteth Architects said good architecture resulted from ‘accretion of finesse’. Without it, he added, the result is mere construction.
Vivien Lyons, principal commissioning projects manager at Hanover Housing, was charmed by the Pritzker Prize-winner’s 1993 building in Chur, Switzerland – a tufa-clad concrete frame with huge, easy-to-open windows set within thick larch frames. As you might imagine, it majors in finesse. Other materials include pine and maple, reflecting both the local building tradition and the textures and colours familiar to residents.
A roll-out spec is not only cheaper than bespoke - it’s easier to maintain
Zumthor, speaking to AJ contributing editor Patrick Lynch last month, said: ‘Lots of people like it. The institution that owns this building hates it. This is crazy. It is good for the users, for the old people. But the owner thinks there are too many visitors, that the solid wood floors are difficult to clean.’
Zumthor’s point regarding the owner’s and residents’ contrasting impressions highlights another issue central to the sector’s fate and one raised in our roundtable debate: should it remain process-driven or should we focus procurement on the end-product?
A process-driven approach irons out finesse: a roll-out specification, triple checked by numerous stakeholders, is not only cheaper than bespoke design, it’s easier to maintain. But if this is to be the sector’s focus, the debate is already over. Imagine making a decision about your parents’ later years based on cleaning products, rather than the quality of the space they will live in. It beggars belief.