Site Logo
Phase one

Senior architect and research & development lead at GT3 Architects, Judith Atkinson, discusses designing for dementia and highlights the importance of ensuring it is considered at the design phase and not an after-thought or tick box exercise.

In the UK alone there are almost one million people living with dementia, with more than one in ten people 65 and over living with the condition. Regardless of there being such a substantial amount of people living with dementia, there are not enough public spaces which are dementia-friendly and there is still a knowledge gap in the built environment regarding how to build these spaces.

Integral to the principle of 'people architecture' is a unique understanding of the individuals being designed for. We must closely consider how these people navigate through the spaces being created. Conviction lies in the belief that tailoring designs to accommodate the diverse needs of various user groups enhances the quality of designs and transforms buildings into more enjoyable and inclusive environments.

GT3 is currently creating a comprehensive series of inclusive design guidance pieces with each project looking into a distinct demographic of users within public and leisure buildings.

The team, often motivated by personal connections or experiences, are currently focusing on designing for caregivers of young children, individuals with autism and/or learning difficulties, the blind, and the hearing impaired. While the industry does offer detailed design guidance for these groups, our perspective as designers and consultation specialists highlights a significant gap in the sport and leisure sector, particularly in wet leisure areas like swimming pools and changing facilities. While our guidance can work for any sector, our expertise has naturally directed our attention to sports and leisure centres. This direction has also been driven by demand as users regularly express challenges in utilising and enjoying these spaces as intended.

Our senior interior architectural designer, Charlotte Stone, and architect, Holly Forsyth have personal experience in caring for individuals with dementia. Their passion has led them to spearhead the project, undertaking interviews with dementia caregivers, hosting workshops with a local dementia group, visiting a dementia-focused care home, and consulting with specialists. The resulting guidance is now used to educate all at GT3 when designing and to provide a checklist of best practice design moves.


How design impacts those with dementia
Dementia is not a disease itself. The word ‘dementia’ is an umbrella term for symptoms such as memory loss, confusion and personality change. Dementia is caused by diseases of the brain. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common but other causes include vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies and frontotemporal dementia. It is important to understand the fundamental challenges people living with dementia and their carers face, before looking for solutions and improvements. People living with dementia, as well as their family and carers have unrivalled expertise and experience of dementia. This knowledge must be respected and used in partnership with design professionals to create more inclusive architectural spaces.


A lack of accessibility
An important part of our research was a focus group with Morpeth Dementia Group— a collection of community members from the North East, each with firsthand experience of living with or caring for people living with dementia. During the research we found that every attendee in this group had never visited a leisure centre with someone with dementia as it was just too difficult. This only enhanced our belief that most public buildings are unsuitable for those with the condition and this is why we have set out to make a change so that everyone can feel confident exercising in public. The challenge in instigating this change is ensuring that not only are designs thoughtful and considered, but that this way of working becomes standard practice for buildings.

Dementia-friendly features
There is no one size fits all for designing for dementia. What could be helpful to one person may be the total opposite to another and could even cause distress. This again reiterates the importance of engaging in early discussions to fully understand the requirements and put forward the most suitable and bespoke design solutions. To foster a more inclusive environment, it is beneficial to consider the following design principles:
1. The Senses: Many people living with dementia have difficulty with their sight which can lead to them misinterpreting certain places. Therefore, designers should make clear wayfinding a priority, as well as icons instead of words when possible and creating spaces like open-plan cafes allows individuals to engage their sense of smell.
2. Personal Precedents: A sense of nostalgia through photographs and artwork can serve as reminders of the past, relating to a particular building or area. Prompts of this nature can help individuals with recollecting past memories that might otherwise be challenging to remember. 
3. Comfort Precedents: Work to create a state of physical ease, wellbeing and a feeling of independence. Examples include comfortable supportive furniture, private areas and natural lighting.
4. Practical Precedents: Addressing design aspects that physically impact individuals with dementia, such as ramps, adaptable furniture, and specific considerations for color and contrast so that differentiation between objects can be easily seen.
5. Biophilic Design: Leveraging a human’s innate attraction to nature by incorporating elements like indoor greenery and external views of nature. This approach has been proven to be calming and contribute to a relaxed environment.


The next steps
The benefit of regular exercise is undeniable for both physical and mental health, and there are also proven links to regular cardiovascular activity helping to reduce the overall risk of dementia. Amid the UK’s ageing population, cost-of-living crises and an ongoing demand on our National Health Service, designers must be aware of dementia and how it can impact people’s lives. Here at GT3 we hope that by taking a closer look at specific user-group requirements in a leisure setting, we can help make a real difference to local communities, not just in the UK, but across the globe too.

Related Stories
Solving acoustic issues in gyms
Floating floors can help ease the problems of noise and vibration in gyms, particularly free weight areas, says Steve Hart, director at vibration control specialist Mason UK.
Energising acoustics for greater sport performance
Noise control in sports halls and leisure centres is often overlooked, yet poor acoustics can impact users’ health, wellbeing and enjoyment. Ben Hancock, Oscar Acoustics managing director, explains.
Green light for £9m Community Health Hub
Work is set to get underway on a new community hub in a Nottinghamshire town after the district council approved plans and secured significant funding for its Health Hub project.
WilkinsonEyre to design new stands at Lord’s
Architects WilkinsonEyre have been appointed to redevelop the Tavern and Allen Stands at Lord’s Cricket Ground.
The Marina Centre
Opened last August, the £26m Marina Centre in Great Yarmouth is already helping to regenerate the seafront, says Alister Broadberry, Morgan Sindall Construction's eastern counties area director.

Login / Sign up