Connecting with nature in dementia care

James Botterill, HSSP Director, Award-winning RIBA Chartered Architect

Ask anyone about their favourite childhood memory, and most often it will involve being outdoors – picnics, sledging, collecting conkers, spotting birds and creepy crawlies.

Later in life, and particularly for people with dementia, feelings of happiness, health and wellbeing continue to be evoked by the outdoors and can significantly impact quality of life.

Biophilic design focuses on increasing connectivity to the natural environment and demonstrates beneficial effects in care facilities. James Botterill, director at HSSP, shares his experience in designing ‘homes that care’ for people living with dementia, centred on biophilic principles.

Outdoor play, at any age

Access to the outdoors is an important aspect of caring for people with dementia, providing fresh air, smells, birdsong, colours and natural light to stimulate the senses.

Wildlife gardens and raised planting beds encourage exercise and purposeful activities, with a therapeutic effect on stress and blood pressure. It provides space for social interaction, addressing feelings of isolation and promoting well-being.

However, accessibility is a barrier in many care homes. Biophilic design requires indoor space and outdoor areas to be simple and safe, aiding navigation and mobility.

At HSSP, we have worked on a concept that deconstructs the traditional institution into a cluster of smaller, self-contained ‘pods’. It breaks down long corridors and noisy communal areas to create light and airy spaces with straight-forward access to the outdoors. The design provides a sense of familiarity and freedom, even for the less mobile.

The outdoors also provides a neutral space for all ages to engage. In Norwich, we recently designed a high-dependency nursing home to include an outdoor children’s play area that encourages young families to visit and enjoy intergenerational play.

Evoking childhood memories

Memories from childhood are more deeply rooted than more recent ones and creating environments that evoke happy early life memories can be stimulating and comforting to people living with dementia. The ‘Gables Care Village’ project in Leicester includes a proposed uplifting outdoor space with bright beach huts, reminiscent of holidays by the British seaside that might have been enjoyed by many of its residents.

Bringing the outdoors in

Biophilic principles apply inside, as well as out. Natural light, materials, textures and colours can be immensely therapeutic and even viewing nature from indoors can have the same beneficial effects on health and communication.

At the Alysia Care Home in Rutland we focused on bringing year-round natural light into internal residential spaces, from bedrooms to corridors. Artificial patterns and lighting contrasts can confuse people experiencing sight loss and dementia, so we work on carefully balancing light and colours throughout.

Orientation and feelings of wellness can be aided by a view of a building, landscape or garden. Residents at the Alysia Care Home enjoy grand views of the Elizabethan manor, Burghley House, through large windows in the central communal building and, on the first floor, a glass roof terrace offers a place to enjoy the River Welland and surrounding countryside.

From care homes to homes that care

The principles of biophilic design don’t stop with the architecture. Installation of incubators into communal areas so that residents can watch chicks hatch provides an uplifting experience of new life and proves to be a boost to feelings of wellness.

And it is not just the residents that feel the effect. Embracing nature through biophilic design also impacts the mindset of staff and the quality of care.

Designing homes that care recognises the importance of a connection to nature and natural light, and it is critical that our care home design evolves to recognise the benefits of a biophilic approach.

HSSP Architects was established in 1966 and prides itself on its quality service and client relationship. The award-winning practice works across the commercial, residential and community sectors.

Edel Harris





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