A familiar place

While public buildings now have to make sure that access for disabled people is taken into account, few consider the specific needs of people with dementia.

However, this is exactly what the Iris Murdoch building on the campus of Stirling University does. Opened in May 2002, it’s home to the dementia services development centre and includes a conference suite, training facilities and accommodation. Among other things, the centre provides training for social care workers, doctors and nurses in caring for people with dementia.

“We commissioned this dementia-friendly building in order to show how to design to enable people with dementia to remain as independent as possible,” says the centre’s director, Professor Mary Marshall. “So far as we know, this is one of the first, if not the first public building in the world to have been designed to provide such an environment.”

The building shows evidence of plenty of creative thought much of which is especially relevant for people determined to cater for all disabilities in their buildings. It has made striking use of light (which helps make it environmentally-friendly inside and out), colour, space and signage.

“When you are in the building you can always see where you are and where you want to go. It is important that the rooms and their functions look familiar,” says Marshall.

In the accommodation area the bedrooms and communal lounge are homely while the kitchen cupboards are all see-through so that you can see exactly where you stored your tea, sugar and cereals. Light switches are in bold, contrasting colours rather than the usual white or cream which can blend in unnoticed against similar wall decoration. Even toilet seats are bright red. Floor surfaces also help indicate where you are: “The different textures of carpeting is a good idea,” commented one person being shown around.

“We’ve shown hundreds of people around,” says Marshall and as the last comment suggests, “feedback has been very good.” And not least for the uninhibited use of contrasting colour to highlight the toilet doors. An interesting idea and effect has been achieved by the use of a series of stained glass panels. These were made for the centre by a group of people in a long-stay NHS ward in the north east of England. It is one of the colourful fruits of the centre’s belief in encouraging people with dementia to join in and enjoy music and arts. Indeed, the centre is researching how the arts can improve communication for and with those who have dementia.

Perhaps one of the most popular features of the building is the “memory wall”.  Conceived as a device to keep the building cool (in terms of heat, but, one suspects, also in terms of chic), the small, individual windows with deep sills provide alcoves for personal or treasured items or other objects that might trigger memories.

The extraordinary design does not start and stop within the building’s bright walls either. The concept continues its careful progress outside also. The garden design (by Annie Pollock, who designed the award-winning Dementia Garden at the 1999 Glasgow Horticultural Show) provides a place for peace and quiet. 

Almost everything smacks of symbolism. Even the centre’s logo consists of pansies and rosemary, which historically were believed to be remedies for memory loss.

The centre takes its name from the playwright, philosopher and prolific author Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) – whose many works blended realism and symbolism. She  died of Alzheimer’s disease, and her life was portrayed in the film Iris. 

Clear thinking is at the heart of the centre. As Marshall says: “As a workspace and training suite it proves that design for dementia is good design for all of us.”

One visitor says it’s “a splendid building in a great setting.” Another notes: “With a mother suffering from dementia, I know the difficulties with signage at first hand. Your solutions are sensitive and very well-considered.”

– For more information contact Mary Marshall m.t.marshall@stir.ac.uk

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