As the World Health Organisation works on a set of guidelines for ‘healthy housing’, a Melbourne architect is exploring creative ways to help people with health-related requirements. By Michele Tydd.

Design for wellbeing in healthy houses

BLOXAS director Anthony Clarke.
BLOXAS director Anthony Clarke.

It took a brief involving a 10-year-old autistic boy to steer Melbourne architect Anthony Clarke towards a largely uncharted area of specialisation.

The boy’s parents were one of Clarke’s early clients and they wanted their new family home to allow for their son’s developing sense of independence within a safe environment. Clarke’s small team at BLOXAS went into overdrive to better understand the autism spectrum and the boy’s individual needs.

“We designed the house so every room had a sense of its own space – even to the point where each had its own roof and ceiling profile – but with a subtle line of sight throughout for the parents’ peace of mind,” says Clarke.

That was 2012 and the substantial reno-build project in East Brunswick attracted much attention and helped put BLOXAS on the map as one of Wallpaper* magazine’s “world’s top 20 emerging practices”.

While few casual observers twigged how the spectacular design was operating on different levels, it proved to Clarke what could be achieved by approaching this health-related niche with scientific vigour.

 “The aim is to give people with neurological conditions that involve debilitating sensory issues a sense of belonging so they don’t feel isolated and marginalised,” says Clarke.

Housing and its one-upmanship aesthetic makes for addictive clickbait but architects such as Clarke are part of an emerging global shift to strengthen the often overlooked connection between wellbeing and our built environment.

The World Health Organisation for the past four years has engaged international experts to stitch together a comprehensive set of guidelines relating to housing construction, renovation, use and maintenance to promote better health. It identified risks that include respiratory and cardiovascular diseases from indoor air pollution, preventable household accidents, communicable diseases spread through poor living conditions, illness and death from temperature extremes and depression from isolation.

The impact climate change will increasingly have on housing is also under the spotlight.

“We’ve built homes in places that don’t make much sense in a climate-change world, so location will become increasingly important,” says the University of Sydney’s chair of urban and regional planning and policy, Peter Phibbs, who is one of the two Australian experts on the guidelines panel.

Ageing populations throughout developed countries have made designing for the over 55s another guideline priority.

“Unfortunately in Australia we have a somewhat Peter Pan mentality on this score,” says Phibbs. “People in their 50s and 60s, for example, are notorious for building so-called dream homes that are incompatible with the ageing process. Bathrooms where you have to climb into showers, narrow hallways that make assisted mobility difficult and too many steps to get in and out of the house are often reasons people have to move on, and that is incredibly expensive.

“We did a project a few years ago involving community workers who said social isolation is the biggest health risk for older people, so easy access, not just in and around the house but also connection to the wider community, is essential for wellbeing as we age,” he adds.

While aimed at professionals, the WHO guidelines, due to be published by early next year, are also meant to improve consumer intelligence.

“If, for example, new units are not selling because buyers realise the design of certain rooms could be improved by allowing for more natural light or cross-ventilation which we know is better for us, that will resonate with developers,” says Phibbs.

Anthony Clarke says he supports any measure to shed more light on the healing power of good design in everything from housing to hospitals.

And while he sees consumer intelligence as important, he says it is a two-way street.

“We keep each brief alive to track our projects and their effectiveness so the process is heavily reliant on us spending time to understand the client’s special needs as well as their ongoing feedback,” he says.

The client living in Clarke’s Garden Pavilion, another high-profile project in Brunswick, whose complex sleep disorder had deprived him of a regular night’s rest for decades, is acutely sensitive to light and sound. He needed a bedroom/workspace within the new family home where he had total control over the sensory environment.

The team worked with thickened concrete block walls, a sound-absorbing ceiling and a system of charred western red cedar shutters – selected for the soft timber’s sound absorbency – to eliminate any external light. By day the space opens onto the light and lush garden.

“Our client, whose condition also involves an obsessive disposition, now has a ritual where every morning and night when he opens or closes the shutters, the charring leaves a slight mark on his hands, which is a visual signal of the clearly defined sleep/wake cycle he needs,” says Clarke.

But in the initial follow-up the team learnt there was still some slight internal noise leaking from other rooms of the house to be addressed.

“We sent the builder back to reconfigure certain parts of the wall, which resulted in 99 per cent noise control,” says Clarke. “This sort of honest feedback can be fed into the next project and the next a bit like a research paper that builds a body of knowledge on a certain topic.”

About the time Clarke began working in this health-related area, he also began lecturing students at RMIT and Monash University on designing for dementia and “placelessness”, which Clarke describes as the state some people find themselves during life’s transitions.

“Aged-care facilities are still pretty bad when it comes to dealing with dementia,” he says.

“I know it’s hard because sufferers can become easily confused and aggressive. But segregating them into special wings or even separate buildings doesn’t seem to me the way to go.”

How would he do things differently if given the brief?

“First I’d look at what these people have lost – and I think it’s primarily independence – so I’d look at creative ways to change that,” he says.

“When they leave their rooms to go walking, for example, I’d perhaps try to find different surfaces that might trigger memory and provide a signal if they are heading in the wrong direction.”

Clarke grew up in Tasmania, and from age 15 spent four years working in an architectural office in Hobart doing odd jobs and studying drafting at night before tackling an architectural degree in two different states.

Soon after graduating, he spent a year in Japan and France working with top architects (Shigeru Ban Architects and Ateliers Jean Nouvel) studying their approach to work more than their actual work.

As he affably chronicles his unconventional rise from office dogsbody to a pioneering architect, which involved many moves to experience different places and their architecture, you have to wonder if there isn’t a streak of obsessive compulsiveness in Clarke’s own personality.

When he decided to move to Japan, for example, he sent 10 handwritten letters to his employer of choice only to get rejected every time. And every project involves between 20 and 40 models to test the strength of the initial concept “even though that concept rarely changes from the beginning to the end”.

Struggling for most of his career to figure out where he fits in, Clarke now knows what he wants to achieve.

“If anything is to change, we have to go deeper,” he says. “Otherwise we’re just feeding the beast and building for money and Instagram.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 29, 2017 as "Health and home".

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Michele Tydd is an Illawarra-based freelance journalist.

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