Fear of Jumping Lesley Palmer

Lesley Palmer is Chief Architect at the Dementia Services Development Centre, University of Stirling. Lesley previously held the position of Studio Director at the Dept of Architecture, University of Strathclyde and has been a guest critic at several acclaimed schools of architecture including Bauhaus Weimar; University of Westminster; Glasgow School of Art and Birmingham Institute of Art & Design.

Lesley speaks to Níall and Yeoryia about the role architects can play in improving the lives of people with dementia. Lesley is emphatic about the importance of allowing people to remain at home and integrated into their communities for as long as possible. She is passionate in her belief that we must not ‘ghettoise’ older people, and have a responsibility as architects to design ‘a cityscape which allows people to stay at home’.

Lesley is critical of the view (which she believes to be common amongst architects) that dementia-friendly and beautifully designed spaces are mutually exclusive. She compares design for neurological impairment to design for physical disability: pointing out that architects now consider the latter from the outset, and this does not preclude them from creating wonderful spaces. Principles of dementia-friendly design are often in alignment with principles of good design generally, such as the consideration of contrast; light levels and legibility of plan. Yeoryia notes that guidelines for dementia design tend to focus on the particulars of the immediate environment at the expense of an wholistic experience, and Lesley agrees that the emphasis, currently, is on sequential relationships.

Regarding public/communal spaces, Lesley states that a new British Design Standard for neurological impairments will be in place within five years. In the meantime, she says that architects may take cues from hotel design, which she sees as exemplary in providing ease of navigation for the occupant. However, she points out that even the most well-intentioned architectural moves are redundant unless there is a level of understanding between the designers and the managers of a building. The architect must respond thoughtfully to the brief, and then be sure to fully communicate these intentions.

Lesley identifies a change in procurement routes as a possible method for the improvement of communication and understanding between the various stakeholders. In developing hospitals, care homes, and other institutions, she would like to see a stronger relationship between the architect, the commissioning body and the end users. She calls for greater collaboration between architects and graphic designers to develop signage and way-finding strategies. Lesley is firm in her belief that all projects should incorporate a Post-Occupancy Evaluation to empirically assess their relative successes and failures, rather than relying on anecdotal evidence.

Níall then describes The Alzheimer’s Centre to Lesley, who offers her critical analysis of its successes and failures in terms of planning, visual contrast, spatial relationships and so on. Níall and Yeoryia describe the differences between the architectural intentions for the building and how it is being used, in particular in terms of the garden. Lesley questions the common view that ‘external space presents more risk than internal space to the individual’. Níall agrees with her, but says that as architects, we must ask ourselves ‘what is it about the building that’s causing management difficulties?’ Lesley identifies some areas where opportunities for passive supervision could be improved, but also notes that there is a need for ‘a conversation about challenging…perceptions on where the building is posing a threat’.  She expresses frustration that balconies are considered a risky building element, despite the fact that there are only two recorded instances in the UK of individuals with dementia jumping from a balcony: ‘we’re depriving everybody of daylight, for fear of someone jumping’.

This dialogue was recorded at the Dementia Services Development Centre at the University of Stirling