Building independence

A new centre for a disability charity consolidates its existing buildings and combines therapy areas with a homely residential environment, supporting the development of the organisation’s specialist care provision. Jack Wooler speaks to architect Edd Rushton

A new Care and Rehabilitation Centre is being constructed for Queen Elizabeth’s Foundation for Disabled People (QEF) at the disability charity’s Woodlands Road campus near the Surrey town of Leatherhead.

As part of a consolidation of its facilities, the £15m new addition is set to bring a host of benefits and assistive technologies to the charity’s repertoire.

Designed by LOM architecture and design, and built by contractor Buxton, the project is intended to provide a specialist care service for people with complex physical disabilities and neuro-rehabilitation for those with an acquired brain injury – and its design contains many considerations to cater to such complex client needs.

At 4,000 m2, the centre is the largest ever investment in the charity’s 85-year history, and will provide 48 ensuite bedrooms, a fully accessible physiotherapy gym, therapy rooms, and recreation, dining and social spaces.

The masterplan

The new centre is located in a picturesque woodland setting in the green belt, with close connections to Leatherhead. The building, which is currently approaching completion, is configured around a landscaped quad, which, along with the more private resident’s garden at the rear, helps the project harmonise with its surrounding landscape.

Before this however, the first step for QEF was to consolidate its existing buildings on the site. The demand for services had been growing substantially, seeing the charity going from supporting around 1,000 people in 2012 to over 5,000 in 2018. LOM, who have a long working relationship with the charity, were commissioned to develop a strategic masterplan that would achieve the consolidation, while simultaneously advancing the site’s reach and function.

“It was through this process that we helped the charity to realise the potential of their site,” says Edd Rushton, associate at LOM architecture. “The project emerged out of that masterplan and is key to delivering their vision.”

The vision was to bring together the charity’s multidisciplinary residential care teams under one roof. QEF has been based at the Woodlands Road campus since the 1930s, which to this day hosts Leatherhead Court, its Victorian-built headquarters to the south of the new scheme. Up until the current project however, the site also comprised a number of separate, disparate buildings set over a large area.

“The buildings were from a whole host of different eras, right through from the 50s, 60s, and 70s onwards, and were time served or obsolete,” explains the architect.

The vision was to bring residential services together into a more “sustainable and focused campus,” and create a building that offered people a modern and comfortable environment to rebuild and develop key life skills, increase opportunities, and take greater control of their lives.

This also enabled a tract of land to be released for sale which, combined with the support of private donors and QEF’s fundraising activities, helped to fund the construction project.

Design approach

When Rushton first visited this site, he was struck by “its balance of convenience – in terms of the local amenities, transport links, and proximity to Leatherhead – with the sense that you were in among nature and connected to it.”

He continues: “We really tried to carry that through the design. Complementing and making the most of the natural setting was a key driver in the development, from configuring the building itself all the way through to the materials, textures and the colours employed.”

Now standing two storeys high, the Y-shaped centre is intended to embody this ideal – being focused around the aforementioned landscaped quad, which allows the building to “foster a connection with the natural environment and improve the wellbeing of the residents.”

Constructed as a steel framed superstructure on concrete pile foundations, the light gauge steel external walls are clad in a material palette of brick, clay tiles and timber cladding – all specified to reflect the local vernacular. Alongside these materials is copious glazing, which achieves further connection to the outside world. This combination of local materials helps the building to “harmonise with its surroundings,” albeit articulated and detailed in a “more contemporary way.”

“The idea was to create an environment that promotes a sense of familiarity among the residents,” Rushton explains, “they are materials which will be known to residents from surrounding buildings.”

He continues: “We selected a light grey blended brick, which contained quite a bit of variation; that’s used on the gable elevations with a red/orange clay tile used on the roofs of the residential wings, providing a warmth and a contrast to the grey brick.” The tone of the latter references the Victorian brickwork found in the neighbouring headquarters building.

The northern side of the new building – encompassing the two prongs of the Y-shape – contains four residential wings, connected by social areas. Between them, the four wings host 48 ensuite bedrooms, all of which overlook either the grounds or the residents’ garden.

The southern section contains more communal areas including catering and dining facilities, a training kitchen for residents, and the fully accessible physiotherapy gym and therapy rooms.

The idea behind the configuration – particularly the arrangement of the south block – was to provide scope for QEF to consider opening up the facilities to support other people with similar conditions,” explains Rushton. “This is important because it offers QEF the opportunity to grow while controlling access to the 24/7 residential area.

Bright & airy

Heading inside, the objective was to create “bright and airy” interiors. Influenced by ‘biophilic’ principles, the architects specified ‘natural’ colours and textures for materials, bearing practicality in mind.

When it came to the ‘bright’ goal, the practice worked with consulting engineers to make the best use of natural daylight throughout the building. “The strategy was to optimise opportunities for daylighting, while also using glazing to provide a connection to the surrounding woodland,” the architect adds.

The design incorporates full height glazing in a number of areas to achieve this, bringing in high levels of natural light while also “framing key vistas in order to bring the natural world in,” says the architect.

As on the exterior, the connection to the natural surroundings was furthered by the interior’s material palette, as Rushton explains: “It’s about bringing the colours and textures of nature into the building. We used timber internally as a feature material, for frames on the inside of the windows as well as the door frames.

Edd tells ADF that the colour palette came in the main from the surrounding woodlands, with shades of greens and golds being prominent: “We used those colours for accenting – in the dining space and the therapy gym, we have acoustic baffles suspended from the ceiling that pick up on that palette.”

Residents’ requirements

When moving around these bright interiors, future residents’ routes through and around them have been “carefully considered from both a functional and design point of view.” In so doing, the architects placed a strong focus on the inherent challenges faced by the building’s users.

Conscious of the number of wheelchair users in the building, for instance, LOM designed the circulation routes to ‘open out’ and become more generous in key areas. As a simple example, where there are four bedroom doors facing out onto a corridor, those areas have been afforded added space.

It was also important to avoid creating a clinical environment; instead the architects put the emphasis on making spaces homely and inviting. “In a building like this, however,” Edd qualifies, “there are some quite onerous clinical and technical requirements, so there was a need to strike a careful balance between those two influences – which were often conflicting.”

He continues, commending the team’s collaborative approach: “I think that was one of the biggest challenges during the project, to find that balance, and we spent quite a lot of time with QEF trying to achieve that together.”

This was of course not the only design consideration necessary for such a challenging typology. “The project is quite unique,” he says, “because QEF provide such highly specialised and personalised care services, which are all tailored around the needs of the individual, with a real focus on residents’ independence. The use of assistive technology in the bedrooms enables each person to have greater control of their personal environment.”

As a result, the brief development process and the architect’s design response had to be, and was, underpinned by a “people-first philosophy,” always with the requirements of its service users in mind.

Furthering this, the design also incorporates assistive technology in order to develop the charity’s care services. All of the residents’ bedrooms feature intelligent controls for example, which allows users to control their environment using device or voice activated methods.

Rushton explains further: “Underfloor heating, lighting, music and TV can all be controlled by the residents using a device or voice activation – even the activation of automatic bedroom doors and window blinds.”

A breath of fresh air

Besides all these specialist design considerations, the building also performs well from an environmental perspective. For one, with the building being designed to achieve a BREEAM Very Good sustainability rating, the design as well as build process were environmentally sensitive: “There was an objective to minimise its carbon footprint, and also reduce running costs – so a number of features have been incorporated to that effect, including roof mounted solar panels, stringent air tightness and insulation standards, with heat loss through the building fabric kept to a minimum.”

The design employs a passive approach to building services, as far as this is possible in this context. An example of this is the building’s ability to ‘breathe’ through the incorporation of stack ventilation chimneys at roof level.

These brick forms have been placed above some of the larger spaces such as the dining hall and the physiotherapy gym, and utilise louvres connected to CO2 sensors. When CO2 levels rise, these louvres automatically open to purge the space.

“They can also be activated by residents,” adds Edd, “it just requires a push of a button and they will open and draw fresh air through these spaces.”

Investing in the future

Set to open in Spring 2020, there’s already been “a lot of excitement” around the new care and rehabilitation centre, the architect tells ADF, “especially so now that the building is taking shape.”

He explains that the residents are looking forward to moving into their “new modern and comfortable building,” and are especially interested in the assistive technology employed – overall, says the project’s architect, “it’s been a very positive reaction.”

Looking over the investment as a whole – it being such an unprecedented one for QEF – Edd adds: “Besides all the new functions, the project is giving the charity the opportunity to engage with new supporters, as well as build new relationships with local authorities and other stakeholders.”

He concludes: “Ultimately, it’s going to transform QEF’s campus, and enable them to keep delivering expert neuro rehabilitation and personalised specialist care for many more years to come.”