Innovation out of Africa

Friday 07 May 2010

HWKN's senior housing creates ties between all ages in the community

A sad fact of housing developments for low-income elderly residents in the developing world is that so many have an institutional feel – of warehousing people. New York-based Hollwichkushner (HWKN) is changing that perception with the firm’s latest project, Aging in Africa.

Located in Lagoon Aby in Cote D’Ivoire, this new housing development aims to be the first age-valued community on the African continent where a group of seniors, previously without housing options, can maintain a meaningful and healthy lifestyle in a comfortable and safe environment.

Designed for client Foundation Saint Joseph d’Arimathie, the project is a retirement community for Catholic priests, who are excluded from the traditional, family-based model of elder care in Cote D’Ivoire. “Priest Raoul Mambo saw many of the elderly priests being homeless or living in very bad conditions in the Ivory Coast - this is why he initiated the project” said Matthias Hollwich, partner in HWKN.

The architecture is shaped by a holistic set of social, economic and environmentally sustainable theories pertaining to elder living and care. “It is about architecture that does not just house caring, it is architecture as the caring device” said Hollwich. “Our hope is that it is an inspiration for a new breed of community that values the efficacy of spirit over efficiency of care.”

Working with aging expert Emi Kiyota, the design team of Hollwich, Marc Kushner, Robert May, Marc Perrotta and KimByung Kyun, conducted focus groups, in-depth interviews and made observations to learn about the everyday lives of priests and their visions for the ideal living arrangements.

What was important to the priests was to stay connected to the community and the various generations in society, and HWKN’s design responds to that by embracing ‘social sustainability’, mixing public programs to maximise social contact between neighboring villages and the elderly priests.

The project, set on a sliver of land between the Atlantic and an inland lagoon, is organised like a typical Cote D’Ivoire village around a central spine that stretches from north to south from existing streets to capture the site’s prevailing winds. Perforations along the perimeter allow the natural vegetation to grow into the village and capitalise on the views of the water. Single-storey residential buildings, designs based on the simple construction techniques available, frame the village’s spine and submerge into nature at their back-ends to facilitate drainage and to blend the site’s edge with the environment. The project’s public buildings are centered on the village axis to reinforce their communal function. Based on simple geometries, the building shapes tilt and fold in relationship to each other, yet with an individual expression. The peaks of the church have a simple geometry that yields a distinct form that is at once a novel and familiar type of sacred space. “(The church) follows the Ivory Coast’s sixties building designs that are recognised as the golden years of the country, and which the population is aiming for again,” Hollwich said.

While not following the strict guidelines of a LEED or BREEAM scorecard, the development will be ‘extremely sustainable’, Hollwich said. The architects are looking into using geo bricks, a mud brick created at intense pressure that does not require wood burning like traditional bricks. No cement or sand is needed as the pressure used to create the bricks makes them so strong that walls do not need to be reinforced with cement, lime or sand. If the development is dismantled, the bricks will erode easily into the soil, unlike baked bricks or cement blocks. “We have natural ventilation, we will use of local materials for construction, and green roofs. We are in talks for a solar system for electricity”, he said.

The construction cost of the project is still to be determined but Hollwich said the estimate is about $1.5 million. The project calls for low-cost construction, volunteer participation as well as micro financing for local businesses to provide community services.

A symbolic setting of the first stone of the project is slated for August with construction anticipated to start in spring 2011 and completion of the residential phase by late 2012, Hollwich said.

What HWKN has proposed, while drawing on best practices in the developed world, should also serve as a reminder to other architects and caregivers of the value of design that creates a culturally appropriate residence for seniors to age in the community with grace and respect.

Jennifer Potash
News Editor

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