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“A Society of Rooms” - Communal Home for the Elderly

Part 1 Project 2010
Gemma Gillespie
Queen's University Belfast, UK
The brief presented us with the challenge of designing a home for the elderly. It discouraged us from creating a medical facility, rather producing a ‘society of rooms’ for the use of the residents. The site, Sandy Row in Belfast, acted as a break in what has been established as a popular shopping street which serves much of west Belfast. My design provides a building that serves the elderly while reconnecting the street, linking these two sets of residents through particular arrangement of the brief.

The thesis specified a non-medical facility, as well as the need to link the two communities, therefore ground floor is of paramount importance. The doctor’s and matron’s offices, although predominantly for the elderly, are also used by the residents of Sandy Row. This will steer emphasis away from the health of the elderly, who occupy the upper floors, while providing them with a sense of belonging as they are essentially using a public service.
Restored shopping units facing onto Sandy Row will support the medical offices. Both the elderly and existing community can benefit from the restorations. Above the units are eight independent apartments. The vertical circulation to these doubles as another entrance to the ground floor and public garden, while acting as a threshold to the main block on elevation.

The continuation of the external fabric into the ground floor indicates the continuation of the community, however change in floor materials as one moves up through the building gives the residents a sense of ownership. Differing floor materials, and particular methods of sound absorption, are used throughout the communal floor to create a ‘society of rooms’. Creating a spatial sequence within the building by the manipulation of acoustics.
Softer acoustics are used in the private upper floors i.e. the residential rooms. The more comfortable the acoustics, the more private the space.

The block therefore consists of three main areas. Each is distinguished by the acoustics inside while being linked externally, from a distance. Subtle changes in the texture of the brickwork, through changing pointing and bonds, differentiate between the three areas.

Gemma Gillespie

Gemma Gillespie

Tutor Statement

The brief set for the group was complex both in its programme, and demanding in its context. A home for the elderly, typically low in density was coupled with a tight urban site with multiple contextual aspects.

Layered upon this, Kahn’s notion of approaching buildings as a ‘society of rooms’ was suggested as a guiding ethos for the development of a communal home for the elderly. Fundamental themes of place-making, thresholds and material exploration were required to be developed with a particular focus on the quality of the internal spaces.

The aim was to develop beauty and meaning out of a seemingly banal programme and a difficult site. If the students could do this, they could learn to see beauty in any project.

Gemma Gillespie’s project was stand-out in the group. Of particular note is the consistent high-level of thought and output throughout the process and on all fronts of the significant architectural challenge.

A sensitivity to the experiential and atmospheric qualities of materials guided her appropriately subtle response to the brief. Following this an impressive study through models and photographs of the desired qualities of interior light and space was conducted.
The arrangement and deployment of programme within the building and in relation to the wider context was deft and displayed valuable lessons learned from the urban design project in the previous semester. Finally, the construction of the building’s main aspects was fully considered and developed.

The above mentioned consistency and assuredness was always combined with a level of exploration, experiment and energy. The multi-faceted skills that are displayed in Gemma’s project are notable at Part 1, but requisite for the development of an excellent architect.

Cian Deegan MRIAI
TAKA Architects


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