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A home from home for sick children’s families

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AJ technical editor Owen Pritchard  talks to Keppie director David Ross about the practice’s new Ronald McDonald House at Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital campus

In front of the counters at McDonald’s restaurants are collection boxes crammed full of pennies that people have donated after getting their fast food fix.

The cash raised supports the Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC), providing properties for families to stay in temporarily when their children are receiving hospital treatment.

The charity was started in 1974 and now has a global network of more than 300 houses in more than 60 countries.

Its intention is to provide a ‘home from home’ so families can stay close to the hospital, helping children to cope better with the stress of treatment. The accommodation is provided free of charge and in 2013 provided 7,000 families with a place to stay.

In the UK, RMHC has properties in 14 locations. Keppie has designed the latest £3.4 million home, adjacent to the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital campus in Govan, south-west Glasgow. Its three buildings, constructed in brick with slate pitched roofs, surround semi-enclosed courtyards, providing a relaxing outdoor space for residents.

Each building has been designed to be as light and airy as possible, creating an atmosphere distinct from the clinical surroundings of the hospital wards.

Owen Pritchard: How did you win the commission?
David Ross:
The Yorkhill Hospital for Sick Children in Glasgow was being relocated to the new Queen Elizabeth University Hospitals Campus in Govan. With this in mind, Keppie approached the existing Yorkhill Ronald McDonald House Board with a view to undertaking a feasibility study for the relocation of their existing house (RMH) to the new Govan campus. Keppie delivered its feasibility study for the facility and also developed a brief and a schedule of accommodation, based on the existing facilities and projected future requirements. Subsequently, Keppie was one of three practices invited by the Ronald McDonald House Board of Trustees to tender for the design of the

OP: What are your thoughts on the RMHC programme?
It has been an honour to work for such an important and cherished charity, which endeavours to bring respite and comfort to the families of sick children at difficult and stressful periods in their lives. The motto ‘home from home’ was the fundamental seed planted by the charity, which grew in our minds and in turn formed the basis of our concept. The charity is truly inspiring, especially when you hear about the guests, their experiences around the houses and the subsequent positive influence of the houses during such a stressful period in time.


Concrete porticos connect the buildings

With this ethos of a ‘home from home’, we were surprised to find that some of the existing houses around the UK felt slightly institutional or non-domestic. Having studied many successfully caring environments, we looked to further explore how good architecture and spaces could have a positive effect on the guests’ psychology and wellbeing, especially in worrying times where moments of calm and comfort can help to reduce stress.

For example, when we worked on the OMA-designed Maggie’s Centre at Gartnavel in Glasgow, we came into contact with some extraordinarily inspirational people. They helped us to fully appreciate the importance of an environment that helps to normalise life for people living through the most emotionally stressful times. It reinforced in us the importance of restraint in design. It can often be the most

We aspired to create a restrained domestic environment

OP: How did you develop the brief?
Keppie, in conjunction with Yorkhill Family House (the independent charity behind RMH Glasgow), discussed the existing Yorkhill facility; what worked well, what didn’t work and what could be improved upon at the new Govan site. We discussed the topic of a ‘home from home’ – what this meant to us and ultimately what this meant to the guests staying at the facility. Subsequently mood boards and forms were presented to continue the discussion and develop an ethos.

OP: How did you formulate the design and massing of the building? How did you react to the context of Govan Road and the hospital?
We sought to create an architecture of domestic forms that embodied the surrounding character of the shipbuilding/urban context, while addressing the inherent sensitivities of an end user reaching out for comfort and reassurance.

The result is a series of vernacular white brick forms, interconnected by green-roofed, white concrete porticos, in turn creating an industrial silhouette fronting Govan Road, which shielded the house from the noise of rumbling buses and screaming ambulances. The domestic brick forms, punctuated with civic concrete sections, set up an architectural narrative, describing the role of the private and public spaces within.


The ceilings of the interior follow the roofline

The plan forms a series of semi-enclosed courtyards providing visual and physical amenity space to the residents. These enclosures, in conjunction with the materiality of the brick, bring domesticity and human scale to the scheme, while offering an urban oasis of vibrant trees, shrubs and plants, contrasting with the otherwise institutional context of the hospital campus.

OP: What informed the material selection?
We selected an understated, calming, yet uplifting material palette as an appropriate backdrop to support the guests staying at the house. We wanted the building to quietly go about its business; not shout about its presence.

The facing brick was chosen with great care and is fundamental in achieving an uplifting yet traditional external language; bringing a comforting emotional connection to the guests as a place of respite. The whites and subtle buff tones of the Wienerberger Marziale facing brick brings a rich softness and warmth to the exterior. The domestic, white tones of the rustic brick complement the smooth, white acid-etched precast concrete fins, which form the south facing porticos and define the public spaces within.


Dark, projecting windows cantilever out from the contrasting white brick forms, defining internal opportunities to sit, relax or read. The contrast between the rustic white brick and the smooth dark aluminium is an architectural play, where the heaviness of the brick and beautiful white textured tones are only fully appreciated in company with the lightweight, smooth, dark toned, aluminium counterpart.

To complete the palette of external materials, slate was chosen to house the vernacular forms and allow the guests to view the facility as something familiar and not too dissimilar to their own homes.

This discussion of materiality was manifold – listening, understanding, empathising, clear communication, research, sample boards and design reviews, all of which helped in achieving a palette of materials that complemented one another perfectly.

OP: How do you create an atmosphere of homeliness in a building that will be occupied for short periods of times by a number of people? Was there a trade-off between comfort and resilience?
A clear and logical internal plan was essential to the guests finding their feet quickly, helping them settle into their new home. This provides comfort and familiarity in a foreign environment which, in several instances, can become home for a considerable length of time.

Regardless of language barriers, concentration levels or emotional vulnerability, the facility is intuitive in terms of navigation and wayfinding, but also in terms of the installed appliances and features.

A clear internal plan was essential to the guests finding their feet quickly

Calming, light-filled spaces flow throughout the building, articulating the function while gently uplifting the domestic forms within. The building forms a comforting and resilient backdrop to the guests, allowing them to go about their daily routine by providing essential facilities such as a kitchen, en-suite bedrooms, laundry facilities, lounges, break-out spaces, a library, tea points and Wi-Fi.

By creating a restrained backdrop of private, semi-private and public spaces, we believe there was little trade-off between comfort and resilience. The comforting environment becomes an essential attribute to assist with the resilience of guests and their subsequent positive outlook.

OP: How did you plan the exterior space? How did you develop the relationship between each building?
The exterior spaces have been developed in conjunction with the internal environments and subsequent desired outlooks. The result is three domestic brick forms interconnected by concrete porticos. These define two courtyards accommodating a vivid city garden space, along with the secure car park and entrance avenue. To enhance the experience and relationship to the gardens, projecting window units reach out to provide a space to read, relax and gaze towards the flora and fauna, while complementing the facility’s calming backdrop.

To create a sense of comfort and permanence for the long-stay guests, we created two small family suites, detached from the main bedroom wing. These form a close relationship to the landscaped garden, enabling the guests to seek further comfort and adopt a piece of the home as their own.

OP: What was the most challenging aspect of this project?
The most challenging yet rewarding aspect has been in the understanding, relationships and planning of the interaction between building and guest. Initially a ‘home from home’ is an alien environment to guests, yet it is required to quickly feel familiar and comforting. Naturally every individual has a different idea of what home is, but we aspired to create a restrained domestic environment for guests of different tastes and cultures to inhabit, in which they could feel comfortable and reassured.

OP: What are your thoughts on a charity providing accommodation like this? Should it be offered as part of the NHS?
NHS budgets and monetary constraints aside, I strongly believe that parents have the fundamental right to look after, comfort and reassure their children – especially in times of great distress when the children are being treated for critical illnesses.

Ronald McDonald House in Govan empowers families, allowing them to be constantly on call, 24/7, and within a few minutes’ walk of the new hospital. This vital accommodation provides, free, short-to-long-term stay and saves families from being penalised by having to pay for expensive hotels, just to be at their child’s side at such a crucial time.


Projecting windows overlook the courtyard gardens

Whether the facilities are offered by the NHS or by great charities such as Ronald McDonald House, every hospital should have the ability to provide free accommodation for the families of sick children, and allow parents to support and reassure their kids around the clock. This works both ways as parents need comfort, care and reassurance too, at this highly stressful time.

OP: What did Keppie learn from this project? What feedback have you had?
Having taken a step back and visited the facility several times since completion, we are very proud of the outcome, the function that it provides and the backdrop created for the guests. We believe that sometimes the most powerful architecture does not need to shout for attention, but be sympathetically restrained and quietly confident in its approach.

Initial responses from residents and staff have been very positive, and while our involvement has focused on providing the best facility to provide the best care, we have been humbled by the individual stories of those involved, and feel honoured to have been allowed to use our talents to improve their lives.

Other Ronald McDonald Houses


Architect: Friedensreich Hundertwasser, Location: Valkenburg, The Netherlands (2007)


Architect: Graft, Location: St Augustin, Germany (2014)


Architect: MGA, Location: Vancouver, Canada (2014)


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