Beyond the Private Room : The View of a Libertarian Design Architect

December 9, 2014

For much of my architectural career, I have been a passionate advocate of privacy and self-determination. This was a driving force for me as a young project architect to invent the private semi-private (wall between the beds and a window for every resident) bedroom in long term care nursing homes in 1979 with our client, Charlie Pruitt in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His mother had just experienced a very difficult experience in a Florida nursing home. As he said, why do you have a roommate you do not know with all of the details of their bodily life in the last days of your own life. So I have always felt a quiet pride as so many hundreds of other designers embraced this unit design breakthrough. This invention I carried through all of our subsequent work in this sector for the last 35 years perfecting all versions of the private semi-private two bedroom suite, adding shower rooms in more recent years. We have added family members stay over spaces and every nuance of promoting comfort and self-expression in the last decades of life.

However, the same breakthroughs have really not occurred in unit design. Despite the “greenhouse” pioneering work to establish no more than 12-16 unit households and cluster and neighborhood language and metaphors, there needs to be more thoughtful pioneering work. It is my frustration with “one size fits all” thinking that fuels our design work nearly every day. Those of us inside the design industry know that residential finishes and cosmetics do not create a home. I can recall our profession’s desire to state perfection in unit sizes such as a 40 bed unit is ideal or a 32 bed unit is perfect or now a 12 bed household is optimal. This arbitrary size setting as a means to perfection is counterfeit design.

The discussion has to go deep critically and thoughtfully into how person who need some kind of care and supervision should be organized not only for caretakers’ visibility and number of footsteps but for real 24-7 access to what each of us might need. We can hope that less than stellar large hospitals and nursing homes may shrink, contract or cease to exist ,but the reality is many of us may need some serious interventions. Our future homes in this country (we hope) may be designed beautifully for universal design, aging in place and home health electronics may at some point not be where we can live out all of the days of our lives.

We have been privileged to work in innovative design in hospice care for both adults and even for pediatrics. We have also been fortunate to work on transforming stodgy older health care settings into state of the art settings. There is no optimal size or shape. There is no one size fits all and there is no formula for architectural design in this arena . Look for new breakthroughs from firms like ours that are outside the box and outside of tired language about “home.” What home has long corridors, soiled and clean rooms, medication stations and staff stations?

So if privacy is paramount and freedom of self-determination for a resident is now understood as central, why should their community of neighbors be formulaic?

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