“Oh no – I said the F-word! – I’m sorry! It won’t happen again,” I told our client in our first design meeting. Just to clarify, the word was “facility,” and up until this point it was a seemingly harmless word – but not in the eyes of our new client, CONNECT Communities.
We had just begun to design their newest transitional residence for acquired brain injury and stroke patients, their first in Ontario. What we would learn within the next month of conceptual design, and over the next two years during construction, was that there is a great deal of difference between a facility and a residence. And that most importantly, it is this difference that will have the greatest impact for a patient recovering from acquired brain injury or stroke. This important distinction is the primary focus for the CONNECT team, and the nexus of their Life Redesign Model™.
To provide some background: There are ongoing conversations surrounding the health care model in Ontario (and across Canada), supporting the research of new methods of treatment and testing of alternative care strategies. Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) is continually evolving and improving on treatments for patients with acquired brain injuries and stroke, leading them to develop a partnership with CONNECT Communities. This partnership has allowed for CONNECT Communities, an established care provider in British Columbia, to offer their Life Redesign Model™ as transitional care for patients who no longer require hospitalization, but need further support before returning to an independent life in their own home. dpai was brought on to support CONNECT Communities’ vision and design their new transitional residence in Stoney Creek, Ontario, at the edge of a burgeoning community and bordering on Hamilton Conservation Authority lands.
As we began the process of understanding our new client’s needs and wants, we toured their residence in Lake Country (Kelowna), BC. What we saw was a building that very sternly wanted to be residential in nature and feel, but needed to be somewhat more robust and generous in order to house its forty-two residents. The community resided in groups of seven, accommodated in six wings. The result was the ultimate “blended” family: each resident at a different stage of their recovery, inspiring and helping each other on their journey back to an independent life.
CONNECT’s Life Redesign Model™ is the lens through which all services and supports are provided by their team of coaches and therapists – and this was explained to be most effective if residents have the freedom and security provided by being “out of the hospital, and at home.” More that just giving new meaning to the phrase “at home,” the Life Redesign Model™ ensures each person’s accountability, uses individual goals with respect to life situations, and employs a “doing-with” coaching approach to take advantage of neuroplasticity (which is doctor-speak for the human brain being an amazing thing that can find new paths to deliver instructions to make things happen). This incredible and hugely successful approach to treatment inspired dpai as Architects to re-think the very concept of residence, and to challenge the accepted, traditional design and construction norms in order to arrive at a successful design.
Don’t Remove the Barriers – Breaking the Rules to Get Better Treatment Results
Architects get a mixed bag of requests from clients— requests that are sometimes outlandish and extravagant. But in the case of CONNECT Communities, we were asked to break the rules. More specifically, the Building Code. Our client insisted that it was essential to the goals of the project to eliminate the barrier-free and traditional institutional elements of the design to achieve a truly residential space. So with that charge given, we began in-depth code research and collaborated with the local building department to procure an agreement that clarified certain requirements that satisfied our client’s vision. For example, the otherwise utilitarian exit stairs were designed to help residents practice navigating stairwells and begin to regain confidence and independence. This concept led to the introduction of natural light with large windows and the warmth of a wood handrail, as opposed to the norm of applying a more economical treatment.
The concept of natural light as a healing element is not new, but the goal for the living spaces went further, with a desire to have a meaningful connection to the surrounding residential community for CONNECT’s residents. The possibility of an encouraging word from a passerby can be of great benefit to someone in need.
Designing for Inclusion and Seclusion
At CONNECT Communities, each resident lives in one of six self-sufficient, seven-bedroom apartments in a unique family-style structure, with other residents at varying stages of recovery. Together they encourage each other to persevere in their treatments.
Like any family, individuals need their own space now and then, so there was a conscious goal to create spaces not only for communal living, but also smaller spaces that allow for personal reflection (or to just be alone for a moment). The kitchen and living rooms provide communal space, with added warmth from a two-sided fireplace connecting the two rooms. The kitchen was built for function, with generous storage and counter space and a harvest table for meals and conversations. Down the hall, a computer nook was added for quick emails and leisure. A den provides a retreat for quiet reading or a private conversation with family or staff, and the central Commons provides a recreation room and lounge with a TV and billiards. A separate library and lobby with large picture window overlooking the conservation lands is also a popular spot for CONNECT’s residents.
The Synergy of Nature and Community
The Stoney Creek property was nearly passed over when the location was selected, as the opportunities for rapid growth and development in the area had not yet been captured by online mapping tools. But as is the case in many cities undergoing a renaissance, one must walk the land to truly understand its place and setting. Once the leadership team saw the property and the growth happening within the surrounding community, the decision was made.
The CONNECT property was a remnant block of parcels in a large suburban survey that likely would have become additional single-family homes, if not for CONNECT Communities. Our client selected the 1.2 ha property to build their residence with hopes of becoming part of the community in a meaningful and tangible way.
Though suburban dwellings now surround the property on two sides, nature abounds to the east where the residence overlooks the scenic Eramosa Karst Conservation Area. Just steps past the intentionally transparent box-wire fence lie walking trails through a Carolinian woodlot, and a Provincially designated area of Natural and Scientific Interest– karst land formations. We learned that this ecological feature is created by dissolving limestone rock, and our client’s neighbouring property features sixteen different types of karst geologies.
This truly special land was an important consideration in the design which allowed us to consider a visible connection to the community – a goal that was accomplished by pulling the building components apart to create narrow corridors with large windows, which provided lighting and views of nature directly through the building.
Landscape elements also played a large part of the successful site plan design: native plants, a bioswale, trees and crushed stone pathways are all elements used to bring the residents closer in connection with the natural environment outside the building. The adjacency to – and actual sitting upon sub-terranean channels – meant careful consideration to surface water drainage across the site and into the natural landscape to the east. A bioswale with plant material designed to capture and retain water as it flows over the land and into sink holes, as well as dry streams and caves in the conservation area, create a physical reminder of the integral relationship we have to the land we build on.
The CONNECT residence is approximately 38,000 sq.ft., and although it is significantly larger than the surrounding family homes, there was a desire to fit within the community and seamlessly integrate into the streetscape. The existing rhythm of building mass and spacing along the street was extended by flipping the building along it’s connecting spine – placing the residential scale pieces on the street, and the larger building block and parking lot along the backside of the property away from view. The result is a streetscape that is not unlike that which has been there for decades. Not just a modicum of success for the building – or rather residence’s design, is that it feels at home in its community – this was an integral goal of CONNECT Communities to be active members in their new-found community.