by Anushka SharmaJun 29, 2023
In between designing for the needs and wishes of people, 'user-centric' is a term that gained much attention. Every design element, whether it be product design, interior design, graphic design or architecture, aims to develop a user-centric output. But when the user itself is unaware of their needs and wants, whom do you design for? And how? That's when the term user-centric moves aside and human-centric comes in. Building from a human-centric perspective isn’t much different or complicated, it only means to add one important parameter to design, which is empathy. The significance of this comes in memory care. While designing and building for the elderly, architecture needs to think and function like the user, for the user. While the architecture fraternity is way past the discussions of healthcare architecture, nursing centres, care homes and old age facilities, the theoretical proposals are slowly taking shape physically. In one such example of defining 'home' for a user group that finds it hard to think, remember and reason, Icelandic firm Urban Arkitektar and Denmark-based Loop Architects have designed Móberg Nursing Home in Iceland. Taking a step beyond the conventional definitions of the typology, the architects took the opportunity to emphasise on 'home' and created a building that transforms into a shelter for residents with dementia.
Amid the scenic land of Selfoss, a town in southern Iceland on the banks of the Ölfusá river, the cylindrical building takes shape as part of the site. Set against the serene green and mountains of the context, the nursing home contrasts with the other buildings in the surroundings due to its architectural language and scale. While prioritising safety and accessibility, most often, even impeccable design of care homes shrink to conventional standards. However, in Móberg Nursing Home, the architects adopt a circular plan, where the central area becomes an open garden space for leisure and the building in turn becomes a protective boundary wall encircling it. Utilising the volume thus formed, the building functions inwards while imparting visual connections outwards. Balconies occupy the wooden appearance of the facade design, thereby opening up the structure to the surroundings and conversing with the immediate environment, even while holding a different world inside.
In the 4100 sqm space, the nursing home hosts 60 private accommodation units. On the ground floor, there are two departments containing 12 rooms each. The first floor has three departments with 12 rooms. Visually absorbing most of the Ingólfsfjall mountain and Ölfusá river in the vicinity, the accommodation units are arrayed along the building's perimeter. All 60 residents live in 28 sqm units, with en-suite bedrooms opening onto terraces at ground level and balconies on the first floor with five of these designed for couples as double rooms. The green roof, along with enhancing the interior comfort, merges the building with the green natural bed of the site. From an aerial view, the building appears to be an exaggerated green mound with a paved garden space in between.
Within the whole project, the courtyard design of the central space becomes the heart of the design. The garden, envisioned to be an open space for leisure and recreation, becomes a protected environment. Between a garden outside the building where the inhabitants with dementia will be constantly under surveillance, and an indoor central garden where they can freely roam around without any help, the architects chose the latter. With such an approach, architecture becomes the passive protective barrier for the inhabitants. Like an example of 'architecture heals', the design itself makes the inhabitants more independent and confident while existing like a protective shell. In the garden, amid the vegetable trees and big larch decking is an art piece by artist Olöf Nordal, called Mannfuglar, meaning ‘man birds’. According to the artist, “the sculpture refers to an ancient Icelandic saying about the connection between the earth and sky, and about peace, hope, love, life and death.”
The Scandinavian architecture of the nursing home was conceptualised for an open competition hosted by Icelandic architect’s association (AI) for the country's government property agency FSRE. Winning the competition, Urban Arkitektar and Loop Architects realised the project on the site. Talking about the same, Project Leader from Urban Arkitektar, Michael Blikdal Erichsen, states, “In the competition phase, we worked with a few rules where we added quality to the building that was not asked for in the brief, balconies and terraces for all residents, a roof to walk with benches around the perimeter to give visitors access to the stunning 360 views. The other important element was the enclosed garden where residents with alzheimers or dementia have access without supervision.”
Adding to the responsible outlook of the architects, the building also takes into consideration multiple sustainability parameters. While incorporating several sustainable design solutions from the early design stages to the end of construction, the building is awarded a very good rating in the BREEAM certification system. Among the many efforts is the use of Icelandic ashes from the 2010 eruption in the concrete mix to minimise the cement import, which gives the concrete cast walls a darker tint. "Building materials such as linoleum floors, painting and sanitary solutions are EPD certified (environmental product declaration) or have the Scandinavian equivalent of the Svan-certification. The nursing home was constructed with a concrete framework cast-in-situ. It is wrapped in imported Norwegian timber (ceder) that introduces warm and tactile surfaces to the exterior, and grass on the roof is harvesting the rainwater,” adds Erichsen.
In a world where there's a common misunderstanding that architecture and design are elite interventions associated with aesthetics, projects like these contribute to a strong argument about what architecture can do. With the right intention, approach and human-centric thoughts, architecture can contribute to making this world a better place. So when the glamour, colours and sparkles of the polished face of architecture subside, there’s an architecture that shaped history, politics, culture and emotions of humanity. So, what lies beneath the many filters of architecture, an epiphany of beauty or empathy of existence?
Name: Móberg Nursing Home
Place: Selfoss Iceland
Client: FSRE, Iceland
Size: 4100 sq m
Architects: Urban Arkitektar (Iceland) and Loop Architects (Denmark)
Partner in charge: Guðmundur Gunnarsson
Project Leader Urban Arkitektar: Michael Blikdal Erichsen
Project Leader Loop Architect: Mette Nymann
Landscape architects: Hornsteinar, Iceland
Engineers: VSR, Iceland
Light design: Liska, Iceland
Acoustic design: Brekke Strand, Norway
BREEAM+ assessment: EFLA, Iceland
Art: Olöf Nordal