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Alzheimer's Respite Centre, Dublin, by Niall McLaughlin Architects


[Building study] Niall McLaughlin’s Alzheimer’s Respite Centre is a new type of building for an ageing society, says William JR Curtis

Within a generation, one in six people in the UK might live to be 100 years old, according to a recent report from the Department of Work and Pensions. This is a projected statistic, but still a firm reminder that many more people are living into old age than ever before.

This means that the problem of care for the elderly is only just dawning upon many families and, of course, upon the state. Precisely when the welfare state is being undermined on all sides by dubious ideological manipulation, the need for support for health and welfare is actually growing.

This situation may lead to the creation of new building types to provide specialist care for part time inmates while also giving them a sense of belonging to a community. Such flexible institutions may provide a sense of solidarity among afflicted individuals while alleviating relationships with their families, relatives and friends.

A building that is caring in its purpose, intelligent and cultivated in its form

This is precisely the relevance of schemes such as the Alzheimer’s Respite Centre at Blackrock just to the south of Dublin, designed by Niall McLaughlin Architects. Alzheimer’s disease affects memory and the sense of belonging in the world: it causes confusion about the sense of time and the sense of place.

A person with this condition has to be reminded all the time where he or she is, and where he or she comes from. There is a strong impulse to wander around by circuitous routes, but this is combined with the need to come back to a recognisable and safe base.

The Alzheimer’s Respite Centre responds to these psychological and physical requirements by establishing a protected precinct of courts, gardens, interconnected social spaces, and private individual rooms, all of which connect with the walled gardens outside.

The social purpose of the building is beautifully translated into a plan that combines a safe perimeter by incorporating an existing orchard wall, an interlocking pattern of gardens and buildings, a series of high, well-lit pavilions with sliding doors permitting a wandering route, and a private zone for lower individual rooms, a bit like the cells in a monastery or convent.

‘To fix a plan is to have had ideas’, said Le Corbusier, and the drawings of the Alzheimer’s Respite Centre reveal a dynamic interplay between walls and planes of different length in a pinwheel arrangement that permits spaces to flow into each other as one moves around, guided in part by diagonal views, variable room heights, and changing intensities of light.

The overall atmosphere established is one of great calm: it is a rest home in which groups can be found working together on projects, watching television, or just sitting quietly in armchairs. The Respite Centre takes the pressure off families in which a member suffers from Alzheimer’s, by according the enfeebled individual a temporary home, but without the depressing features of much hospital and clinic architecture.

There is a sense of protective enclosure without one of being imprisoned; there are always alluring views of plants, lawns, allotments and, of course, the low walls, which are mostly made from a warm, pale yellow textured stock brick. The other main material is wood, which is used on the pavilion roofs and for windows, doors and panels.

These materials are sympathetic in themselves but they are handled with great skill and conceptual elegance: the story of this work is told through the interaction of a brick labyrinth of extending planes and a timber system of pavilions conjugated with beams, panels, transoms and roofs, all adjusted to the human scale.

In other words, McLaughlin has succeeded in establishing an architectural language appropriate to the ethos behind his project.

When I visited the Respite Centre, I was struck by the attention given to humane details such as low, built-in benches made of wood in individual rooms where family members could be expected to spend a lot of time. The zone set aside for staff and help was discreetly separated, while each person’s room was signalled by a different bright colour at the entrance.

The visitor proceeds through layers before coming to the patient’s wing which is sequestered and quiet. The only disappointment in all this was the failure of the long walls shown in plan to develop spatial continuity. The rooms are more compartmentalised than they appear in the drawings.

The entrance zone is not really up to the same level as the rest of the building, having something of the air of a reception area in a modest hotel. The joy of this complex is in the garden spaces, which in and of themselves have a healing effect. In fact, the centre is installed in the remains of an 18th-century walled kitchen garden with some solid granite walls. It is interesting how much of the best recent Irish work is slotted into intervals left over by old institutional buildings and their surrounding dependences.

The Respite Centre is well integrated into the fragmented context and stitches it back together in an intervention of architectural surgery. McLaughlin’s evocative coloured conceptual drawings for the project (which recall Persian miniatures in the way they present plan and elevation simultaneously, and also remind one of some of Hassan Fathy’s drawings or those of Balkrishna Doshi) present the Respite Centre as a sort of verdant paradise: truly a garden of healing. Behind these somewhat ‘false naive’ presentations there is a highly sophisticated understanding of the history of modern architecture.

The extending planes and centripetal spaces put one in mind of Mies van der Rohe’s unbuilt ‘Brick Pavilion’ of 1922, while the wooden lanterns floating above a labyrinth recall Rudolf Schindler’s own house in Hollywood of the same year.

The abstraction of monastic prototypes has had a little help from Luis Barragán’s secretive residence at Tacubaya, Mexico City, of 1947. Part of the art of architecture is to hide the art of architecture, and the Respite Centre has a commendable sense of modesty.

At a time of social fragmentation, excessive architectural gestures, and artistic narcissism, what a relief to find a building that is caring in its purpose, intelligent and cultivated in its form, and well-crafted in its construction.

McLaughlin and the client, the Alzheimer Society of Ireland, deserve praise. In the future, this building may well serve as a prototype in dealing with the social, physical and emotional problems likely to emerge in an ageing population.


Start on site June 2006
Contract Duration 5 years
Form of Contract Government Departments and Local Authorities Contract (GDLA 82 with Quantities)/Traditional Procurement
Internal Floor Area 1, 392m2
Cost per m2 £1,950
Total Cost £2.7 million
Client Alzheimer Society of Ireland
Structural Engineer Buro Happold Consultants
M&E consultant Buro Happold Consultants
Quantity Surveyor Tom D’Arcy & Co.
Landscaping Desmond Fitzgerald
Building control officer Oliver Muhr, Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council

Specification Notes 

Clay facing bricks Grovehurst Stock F72, James and Taylor Ltd
Lime mortar Limetec Eminently Hydraulic Mortar HL2.5, Lime Technology Ltd
Structural timber frame and stud wall manufacturerCygnum
External timber finish Sikkens HLS Plus base coat, Sikkens Cetol Filter 7 finish coat (077 Pine)
Roof covering system PVC single ply membrane, Sika-Trocal SGK
Suspended ceilings British Gypsum
Rigid roof insulation Kingspan
Joinery Munster Joinery
Carpet tiles Milliken Carpets Ltd
Homogenous linoleum flooring Marnoleum Fresco, Forbo Nairn
PVC Sheet in wet areas Polyflor Ltd
Glass globe pendant lights Massive Lighting


Architect’s Account

Alzheimer’s disease affects memory and cognition. This in turn affects our ability to place ourselves in the world. Most of us know where we are because we remember how we got here. A building designed for people with Alzheimer’s must renew the sense of presence that allows us to locate ourselves in a situation. At any moment I might find myself lost and look for signs that will return me to the familiar.

Someone with dementia will usually benefit from remaining in the company of others at the social hub of things. At the same time they may feel a deep urge to wander. These needs, centripetal and centrifugal, need to be reconciled. In this building we tried to achieve that balance using wandering loops. These are journeys you might take on an outbound wander that gently bring you back to the sociable core. Routes, where possible, are through gardens and rooms, avoiding claustrophobic corridors. No journey ends on a cul-de-sac which might induce disorientation and panic.

The new respite centre is built in an 18th century walled kitchen garden. The old granite walls are lined with warm brick stocks on the inner, sunward orientations. This helps to capture warmth for climbing plants. The garden was terraced on 3 levels and we positioned the building on the middle one to avoid internal level changes. This fully accessible central area will aid mobility for older people.

We have placed the building to frame views of new garden spaces created between the new construction and the old enclosure. Each garden is orientated in a different direction and is intended to be experienced at different times of the day. Users can move around rooms in the interior, following the sun like a clock, experiencing change throughout their daily journey. Each garden is planted to generate character appropriate to its orientation. There are courtyards, orchards, allotments and lawns. The old garden planting is long lost but we hope, over time, to create a rich environment that will allow frail older people to continue working in and enjoying the garden.

The internal organisation of the building recalls our experience of Rudolph Schindler’s Kings Road House and Luis Barragan’s own house in Mexico City. In each case, we remember a constant unfolding within the limits of a fixed container. For someone with Alzheimer’s, their environment becomes immediate and foreground. We hope that this little world we are making will unravel continuously when experienced in the moment. It will be a success if people spending time here are able to situate themselves and feel at ease in an environment which is both various and constant. This should manifest itself in decreased wandering and aggravation.

The construction is made of extending brick walls supporting square wooden lanterns that bring light deep into the plan. This even, glare free, illumination is vital for encouraging mobility and avoiding visual confusion. As you move through the building you are constantly provided with glimpsed views of gardens through tall timber windows. We see the building as a frame, not an object.


Client Brief

We were asked by the Alzheimer Society of Ireland to research and then design an exemplar day care and respite centre for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

The initial brief was to research contemporary thinking about Alzheimer’s disease and then design the building from those findings. Use of colour, light, movement, space, materials, smells, orientation and specialised standards were subjects researched in the context of the building users and incorporated into the design.

The centre would provide respite beds for 11 clients and day care facilities for up to 25. It includes the national offices for the Alzheimer’s Society of Ireland. More broadly, the building will serve as a worked example for future respite centre designs elsewhere in Ireland. Architects appointed by the ASI in the future can visit this building and reflect on all of its successes and errors. This is important for a newly evolving building type.

The design incorporates our research findings into contemporary thinking about Alzheimer’s disease and it includes wider design recommendations for older people. We investigated contemporary writing on the subject, interviewed staff and volunteers; visited other buildings and spent time observing our clients in their daily setting. The findings are manifested in the following features:

  • Distances between seating areas are short;
  • Wide walkways have been introduced to ease assisted ambulant / wheelchair access and designed to enable two carers to walk with a resident.
  • Toilets are located within very short distances of social areas and visible from beds in bedrooms;
  • Lighting has been designed to minimise glare and shadow and to achieve even illumination throughout;
  • Floor, skirting and walls are clearly differentiated by use colour and tone, however no patterns are used on floors and the possibility for sharp shadows has been minimised;
  • Doors are colour coded to distinguish rooms between toilets, ‘my room’ or non-access;
  • Coloured walls are introduced in key positions to aid orientation;
  • The plan ensures intuitive, safe way-finding and there are no dark corridors or dead ends;
  • Raised planting beds are included in the garden;
  • Natural wandering loops are incorporated in the plan;
  • Continuous handrails are installed on walls throughout the building; and
  • The sloping site has been organised to provide a central fully accessible level area with level access to gardens and courts.
  • It is not a residential building, but the bedrooms are designed with window seats and built-in desks to allow someone to populate it easily with familiar mementos and objects.
  • The entrance is easy to find going in, but almost invisible once you are inside. This reduces anxiety for clients.
  • Every room has its own garden.
  • Rooms are connected by doorways and openings but they can be isolated if necessary to separate noisy, agitated or belligerent clients, allowing them to become calm in a safe place without agitating the rest of the community.
  • A z-shaped zone of ancillary rooms runs through the spine of the building allowing staff to work on tasks while maintaining constant passive contact with clients.
  • Staff rest space is removed from the client area to allow full wind down and relaxation.
  • Three manager’s offices passively overlook the single entrance court, allowing an additional layer of passive supervision.

Planning Constraints

Under conservation and planning laws, the garden walls were designated ‘Protected Structures’ and to be retained. The building had to respect the garden setting and the presence of the old walls.  In addition, planning guidance required the building to be clad in brick to match the lining of the existing garden walls. 


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Readers' comments (2)

  • Another great project from this guy. I love the Persian minature drawing which I think is breaktaking and a breath of fresh air.
    A genuinely brilliant architect.

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  • Francisco Checa Romero

    Fully agree with you Michael.
    Niall really knows to make a difference in architecture.
    Truly, he is quite an individual, make no mistakes.

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