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The benefits of good interior design

Alexandra Ledger explains why a good interior designer isn’t an additional cost to a project but an essential professional to maximise profitability and quality of life.

Fuelled by both media coverage and Government policy changes, the significant rise in public interest in the care home sector in recent years has resulted in a population that has become more informed, more demanding, and more knowledgeable about what is available.

One outcome of this has been the rise of an increasingly competitive private market, in which interior design has grown to become an important focus for residents and their relatives when choosing a home.

Importance of design

The measure of a successful care home is taken in a number of different ways. The wellbeing of residents, commercial success and the quality of management and staff all play important contributing roles. However, it is not often that design is extolled as a key factor. Yet in 2002, the Joseph Rowntree Trust’s report on designing and managing care homes for people with dementia stated that, ‘good and pertinent design will provide the platform on which these other success factors can be based.’

Similarly, successful care home design is, in itself, the bringing together of many different elements. It involves collaboration between people offering a wide range of expert skills, with a home’s interior design having equal standing to the exterior appeal. A good interior designer can play a key role in the successful completion of what can be a difficult process, making it important for clients to take this into account at the outset of what will inevitably be a complicated, collaborative effort.

Engage the right designer

If you are considering undertaking a new development or refurbishment it is essential to establish what particular services you need from an interior designer. The term ‘interior designer’ is, unhelpfully, an ambiguous, catch-all phrase that encompasses professionals working for both the domestic and commercial markets and fails to recognise the very different sectors and levels of services available.

Given the complex and rigorous demands placed on interiors within care environments it is key to ensure you engage a designer with the knowledge and experience to provide appropriate solutions; this helps to maximise the return on your investment. You want to be secure in the knowledge that the finished product will not only appeal to potential residents and give the best opportunity to improve their health and wellbeing, but also be fit-for-purpose and thus maintain these benefits into the future, giving a home long-term viability.

Due to the unfamiliarity with the services an interior designer can provide, there can be the perception that the role is not essential and, therefore, an additional and unnecessary cost. However, a knowledgeable and experienced designer (especially when brought on-board early in a scheme) can add real value to a project. A recent example of this was where we identified the unnecessary over-provision of assisted bathrooms on planning drawings for a proposed care home and were able to reconfigure the interior layouts to gain an additional bedroom on each floor. This added income potential to the home. Financial acumen not only applies to the ability to see the bottom line implications of design; budgetary control is also of crucial importance. Good designers have the knowledge and resources to make a limited budget go further.

Different interior designers will offer different levels of service. For example, some will provide a purely furniture, furnishings and equipment (FF&E) based service – put simplistically this covers anything that would fall out if you tipped the building upside down. Other designers offer a more holistic service, which, in addition to the above, provides a more in-depth and architectural interior design solution. You would expect to receive much more input on how a space is to be used and how different areas of a home might affect different residents and their wellbeing.

This type of service might typically include involvement in the layout and design of internal spaces at early planning stages, ceiling and lighting layouts and the co-ordination of services. Providing this level of input is traditionally how designers work within the hotel and leisure sectors and, generally, achieves a more comprehensive finish overall.

Benefits of experience

There are risks involved if you don’t employ a specialist for your interior design. These can include:

  • Lack of programming and management of the design process can lead to critical dates being missed in the contract programme, causing delays and potentially added costs.
  • Potential for compliance failures, with finishes and materials not meeting regulatory issues such as Building Regulations, Fire Regulations and British Standards.
  • The aesthetic ‘promise’ of the exterior of the building ends up not being matched by the interior.
  • The design doesn’t consider specialist best practice such as design for dementia.
  • Not getting the best finishes, furniture and furnishings solutions to suit your budget.
  • Ill-considered furniture and fittings provision increases the likelihood that interiors become ‘institutional’ in style.
  • You may lose the opportunity to increase the health and wellbeing of residents through good design.

What to expect

A good commercial, interior designer, specialising in care environments and experienced in providing services for new build and refurbishment contracts, will be able to work seamlessly with your consultant team. They will provide a structured, managed process for the interior design phase. This will tie in with the main contract programme and critical dates for the project, ensuring requests for information from your consultants and contractor are met and avoiding site delays and their costs.

The starting point of any design project is the brief, which is an essential first step. If one does not already exist then your designer will help you develop this to provide a clear and robust framework around which the interior design is formed.

They will have an extensive resource and design library. This will contain the latest finishes and materials available for the contract market. You should also expect your designer to be up-to-date with the latest materials that are most suitable or specifically designed for care environments. They should also be able to advise on interiors matters relating to current Building Regulations, British Standards and Care Quality Commission requirements.

Timing is important. Commissioning an interior designer early on in a project to plan interior spaces properly can bring to light design issues which might not have been considered. For example, we were brought in late on a project to provide decorative interior design services. On examination of the plans we highlighted that the first thing people coming into the building would see were the double doors of the plant room facing the entrance. Unfortunately at that late stage it would have been too costly and disruptive to reconfigure the access but an earlier involvement would have led to a better and more aesthetic solution.

Key traits in a good design company are flexibility of approach, an ability to provide a breadth of service to suit each individual project and, as necessary, the ability to see a project from the earliest planning stages through to completion and beyond. Whether it be planning stage interior architecture, detailing bespoke joinery (eg. reception desks and bars) or providing the essential finishing touches and accessories to complete your ‘home’, your designer should be able to collaborate with your team to provide a holistic and seamless package covering all your requirements and aspirations.

Good design in dementia care

Nowhere is a collaborative and holistic approach more important than when designing homes for people with dementia. There is increasing evidence that poorly-designed care environments can have a significant and detrimental effect on patients with cognitive problems and dementia, leading to additional distress and confusion. The Government recognised this in autumn 2012 when the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt MP announced £50m of capital funding for improvements to dementia care environments in hospitals and care homes.

Designing for dementia is a complex, often confusing and sometimes contradictory discipline, covering an immense range of issues. The challenge is to provide a service that, as its end result, maximises quality of life for residents whilst simultaneously reducing the burden and cost of care delivery. This may appear counterintuitive but good designers are used to handling seemingly contradictory objectives.

It is well-recognised that specialist dementia design, based on understanding the impact of physical environments on people with dementia, can help to:

  • Reduce falls.
  • Reduce incidents of behaviours that challenge among service users.
  • Increase carer involvement.
  • Foster the personal and professional development of team members, with improvements in staff retention, recruitment, sickness and absence.
  • Increase productivity and reduced waste by using spaces more effectively.

With these goals in mind, an experienced designer can talk you through established best practice and offer bespoke solutions to best suit your needs and those of your particular residents. Cognitive decline introduces a wide variety of difficulties for designers. Whilst doctors research medical advances to combat the condition, designers have a role to help mitigate some of the everyday effects. It is clear that taking steps to ensure environments are appropriately designed enables residents to maintain a measure of independence, allowing them to enjoy some of the skills of daily living. As designers and developers, we have a responsibility to ensure we provide the very best environments to maximise independence and dignity.

Designing for the care sector is complicated and challenging. However, if you choose to combine professional design with ambitious development or refurbishment, then there is every opportunity to have real impact on people, giving them greater quality of life and developing a lasting asset for the local community.

Alexandra Ledger is Managing Director at Bright Bay Design.

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