RIBA Silver Medal Winner: Nobody Wants to Live in a Care Home, Ellie Harding
We are proud to announce that our 2023 graduate Ellie Harding has been awarded the RIBA Silver Medal. To learn more about her winning project, hear what her tutors have to say and to read an interview with Ellie herself, see below.
‘People with a today and a tomorrow, not just a yesterday’
– London Assembly for Young-Onset Alzheimer’s
Alzheimer’s disease is not limited to the elderly. Supportive housing options fail to reflect this, meaning people diagnosed with young-onset Alzheimer’s can be faced with a difficult choice – to remain in unsuitable housing or to move into residential care – often compounded by the needs of their young families. This project enables families to continue living together, in the centre of their communities, and with access to the same public buildings.
Architecture cannot cure Alzheimer’s.
However, an architectural understanding of the spatial confusion associated with the disease presents an opportunity to radically reimagine a design approach for dementia spaces, prioritising quality of life and cognitive accessibility. This has been informed by the distinction between egocentric and allocentric spatial cognition: whereas a healthy brain takes egocentric, or point-of-view route-based spatial information, and forms an allocentric, or bird’s-eye cognitive map, studies of Alzheimer’s show this translation begins to break down, causing increased reliance on egocentric perception. This project asks how an architectural understanding of the effects of Alzheimer’s on spatial perception can be used to create better spaces for those living with the disease.
“Ellie deftly managed a highly sensitive topic which had a personal resonance, with a methodical approach which gave her the critical distance to be very experimental and have a grounded response. Her work was special in not limiting drawing a project from a thesis question but developing a rigorous design methodology based on a spatial issue drawn specifically from her research on Alzheimer: perception of space. Her architectural resolution revealed a sensibility, showing us that she was not only employing a method, but imbuing a warm sensibility to this new suburban block. Weaving rigour and warmth, her project offers an uplifting promise for new types of living for a vulnerable group which are not represented in traditional care architecture.”
– Fabrizio Matillana, LSA Design Tutors
Drawing from perspectives which differ to her own, Ellie looks inside and outside the profession for new ways to approach design problems. Her thesis project applies research by neuroscientists and psychologists, while also championing the crucial first person accounts of health workers, people with Alzheimer’s and their families.
Translating across many different media, her process is always conscious of the first person experience of the space, which informs her approach to material, light and form.
“Ellie’s project is an exemplar of the kind of work the LSA was set up to nurture and champion. Her design-led process generated new forms of drawing to unlock ways of visualising alternative perceptions of space, and then crucially applies them as a design tool. Ellie’s work deploys a design method that is attentively experimental, and proposes a kind of radical realism that communicates to architects and non-architects alike”.
– Samantha Hardingham, Academic Director
“As soon as Ellie first introduced her project, the title struck a chord. As a provocation it is immediate and relatable, but as the project progressed, it became apparent that the empathy and sensitivity evident in the underlying thesis was also being translated into her rigorous and intuitive design processes.
This project, in my view, represents the best of the LSA – it is a highly thoughtful and rigorous synthesis of relevance and creative zeal. It was a pleasure to support Ellie as the project developed, and I am delighted that her work has been recognised at the highest level”.
– Kit Stiby-Harris, LSA Design Tutor
AN INTERVIEW WITH ELLIE HARDING
Ellie, congratulations on winning the RIBA Silver Medal! How does it feel?
I am so excited and honoured to be receiving this award, it’s an amazing way to end this first part of my architectural career and education! It is especially meaningful as this project has personal significance. I was inspired to explore housing options for people with early-onset Alzheimer’s due to a close friend’s lived experiences, and the lack of viable supportive housing options currently available for her family.
A common critique of socially motivated projects is ‘can architecture really solve that?’ and while the answer is often ‘no – not entirely’ I hope this project advocates that architects and students can and should explore the impact they can have.
I found it particularly rewarding to look outside of the profession for new sources of information on how an Alzheimer’s friendly environment might be designed. By reading scientific research papers and considering the implications of their findings on built space I was able to inform my design process with careful research, which is something I’m very passionate about.
The end result and process was the first of my academic projects that I feel really reflects my own design and research values, and to be recognised for this body of work is a fantastic feeling.
Do you have any plans to take the project further?
I don’t have any active plans to continue the project at the moment but I would definitely be keen to continue this research and explore its viability. I think the research and design methodology for greater cognitive accessibility could be applied to many more scenarios, including retrofitting existing buildings and urban planning. As the title of my project ‘Nobody Wants To Live In A Care Home’ not so subtly suggests, I believe there is a lot that can be done to improve design proposals in the care sector, and I hope to work in this area again in the future.
This is the first year someone from the LSA has ever won or got a commendation for the Silver Medal. Can you tell us a bit about how you think the LSA supported you throughout your Master’s, to help you get to this point?
Studying at the LSA was fundamental to this project coming to light. The student led thesis rather than studio/unit based as in other schools meant that I was supported to choose a topic that was personally motivating, and pursue it in my own style with my own way of working. As a result of this, the final outcome is a true reflection of my own voice which feels really empowering going forward into job interviews and the beginning of my career.
The school definitely encourages you to discover and refine your own voice as a designer.
Studying among other young designers who are electing to confront equally compelling issues is incredibly motivating and fills me with a lot of hope for the future of the profession. The LSA encourages you to consider the project in the ‘real-world’, including its cost, client, financial models and procurement. This isn’t something I have been challenged to do before and it enriched my project, leading me to make considered design and brief choices which I could confidently back up. I think this has really prepared me for the reality of practice and inspired me to be more aware of the business side of the profession.
At the LSA you work with two Design Tutors throughout Second Year and you worked with Kit Stiby-Harris (Senior Architect at Purcell) and Fabrizio Matillana (Design & Conservation Deputy Team Manager for LB Islington). What was it like working with them?
Kit and Fabrizio have different design backgrounds and varied experience which made tutorial discussions well balanced and really thought provoking. I felt my voice was respected as an equal while also having really talented designers to ask for advice and guidance. There were definitely times where I needed to be challenged and they always did so in a really constructive way. I am very grateful to have had such fantastic tutors and I am very glad to share this success with them.
And finally, Ellie, tell us about something you are working on now, that you’d like people to know about!
I am moving to Melbourne, Australia in February and so will be looking for work in Melbourne. Please drop me an email if you are interested in working together!