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Closing the loop

In its care home extension to a 1840s building for the Actors' Charitable Trust, Acanthus LW Architects needed to develop a compact form and find an appropriate architectural language

After the demolition of a 1960s extension to the 1840s Denville Hall in Northwood, north-west London, Acanthus LW Architects has designed new accommodation for the Actors' Charitable Trust that is perhaps twice the size of the original. By using and adapting the landscape of its large garden (new landscaping also by the architect), the whole is broken down into a sequence of different prospects that respect the scale of the hall and do not overwhelm it. Indeed, much of the story of this project is about disposing space successfully. New accommodation was needed for a further 40 ageing thespians, 15 of them Alzheimer's sufferers.

Acanthus LW won the job in a 1999 competition, beating Penoyre & Prasad. A key issue was to choose between putting all the residents' accommodation on the ground floor and adopting a more compact two-storey or three-storey option. It favoured compactness, notably because a compact building would be less controversial with planners and more economical to run. It would also keep travel distances for residents and staff to a minimum and allow as much garden as possible to be retained, while leaving more site space for future expansion. The building is essentially two-storey, with a spine of staff accommodation in one extended roof area above.

One of the special needs of Elderly Mentally Infirm (EMI) carehomes is that people should be able to wander at will, without the risk of becoming lost or disoriented. The resolution of this has been to create a corridor loop around a small courtyard. Its curvature lessens the institutional feel and the closure of the loop aids supervision.

A further loop has also been created for the EMI accommodation, which is on the ground floor, taking in a new arc of garden immediately outside. At this point the sloping site has been steeply banked, creating a relatively private outdoor enclave. Beyond this, behind a semi-permeable screen on top of the bank (Alzheimer's sufferers often don't like being looked in on), is another arc of path, with the bank high enough for there to be level access to it from the other 25 rooms on the first floor, connecting them with the rest of the garden.

We can see variations on this approach to walking routes in the care environments of the mental health unit at Highcroft Hospital in Birmingham by Maap Architects (AJ 14.11.02) and the Bon Secours Care Village in Cork by BDP (AJ 10.7.03) Also on the ground floor there is a new, stylish restaurant - none of the look of a community kitchen here. Within the hall itself, changes include a meeting room that has been converted into a flat-floored theatre for between 30 and 40 people for talks and performances, an extended bar and a two-storey foyer created alongside the main stair. This sits not at the entrance but at the new centre of gravity of the total more-public spaces. This should not be taken to imply that no-one ever goes out. Many residents are significantly independent and there is a car park with 40 spaces.

There was also the question of finding an appropriate architectural language. Tom Kimbell of Acanthus LW suggests that achieving this is in some ways more difficult than, say, building new in steel and glass, even if the results will be less striking. Some of the architect's approach comes from reacting to the asymmetrical massing, materials and largescale domesticity of the refurbished hall. In particular, this brick-built building had been cement-rendered in the last century - the render failing and trapping moisture. This render was removed, inevitably with some damage to the brickwork, so it had to be rerendered, now with a lime-based mix to allow the walls to breathe. It looks as though this has been successful, though reaching moisture-stability takes time.

Render is used in the new work, cementbased for cost reasons (though at least the new substrate is appropriate). That said, the architect chose brick as the main walling, making it clear that the new work is a later addition rather than seeking seamless integration. The areas of new render work well on the longish runs of rooms, used to articulate the alternating bays and recessed balconies.

Less successful is the render framing of the large new dining room adjacent to the front entrance, where this render lacks the apparent solidity of the old. Apart from the render and brick, the other main materials, which should also weather well, are roofing of slate and copper (also used for rainwater goods) and cedar boarding. There is, of course, more fenestration to the new element, improving daylight and contact with the surrounding gardens, to which the bedsits are oriented.

The passive stack ventilation system is also expressed domestically, as chimneys - copper along ridges, brick to the gables - which also house soil vent pipes.

The architect has worked to reduce the institutional feel, especially in that most difficult area of corridors. These are 1,500mm wide, with wall-wash uplights and clerestory lighting. The inevitable handrails are of Sapele with stainless-steel fittings crafted on by the carpenter.

Experience shows that care homes need some institutional scale to be viable. Within that, Acanthus LW has created a personal environment that works as a home, with quality and dignity. You might choose it for yourself, or rather your children might choose it for you. Which is why we have to be nice to them.

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