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Design betters seniors’ lives
By Michelle Qiao


THE ambience of a nursing home is often dreary, but French architect Denis Dessus made a difference when designing his first project for the elderly in France 30 years ago.

“No matter whether it’s in Europe or in China, people are unwilling to visit their parents owing to the atmosphere of a nursing home. So I designed a swimming pool inside, not for the elderly but for their grandchildren. As a result, every week the kids became eager to visit their grandparents and they added so much vigor and joy to the place,” Dessus recalls.

Dessus was recently in Shanghai working on renovating the Rhone-Alpes Pavilion and shared his knowledge of green architecture and buildings to care for the elderly — a great need for China’s aging population.

A promoter of environmentally sound buildings with expertise in designing nursing homes and hospitals, Dessus is famous for creating a “green building” for the World Expo 2010 Shanghai — the Rhone-Alpes Pavilion.

Located in the Zone of Urban Best Practices, the pavilion, known for bamboo walls and rose gardens, now serves as an exhibition and promotion center for lifestyle design and innovative art from France.

It was his innovative, sustainable French office building powered by geothermal heating that impressed a committee and won him the opportunity to design an Expo pavilion.


He has helped guide the renovation to make the pavilion a better host for the French delegation last month as part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Sino-French diplomatic ties.

Now Dessus is working on replacing the withering plants on the façade and upgrading interior space to house a growing number of French enterprises which set up offices in the pavilion.

During Dessus’ early visit, the Shanghai Research Center on Aging released statistics showing that the number of Shanghai’s gray population is set to pass 6 million by 2025 at the current rate of increase. The aging society has arrived but many young families find it hard to look after elderly relatives at home.

Nursing homes and housing projects for the elderly have even become a hot investment prospect, attracting leading developers including China Wanke and Poly Real Estate.

Given the need, it was timely for Dessus, 58, to share details from his 30-year practice that could help in designing a better home for China’s booming aging population.

When designing a nursing home, the architect works with doctors and management staff and considers the aging development. He often puts himself in elderly people’s shoes.

“I’ve carefully studied the aging process. Most new residents of a nursing home are healthy but they will bit by bit lose the capability to take care of themselves in 10 years or so. Their rooms should be adjustable to adapt to emerging new requirements,” he says.

Dessus also talks about issues such as colors, sounds and light.

“I used different colors on different functional parts of a flat to help the elderly with location. I avoided dazzling light but used some strong light (which senile dementia patients dislike) to prevent them from walking into unwanted zones,” Dessus says. “Ordinary noise, like several people talking, is bothersome to an old person. So facilities to eliminate the noise are also considered in the design.”

Gardens are also an important element in his version of nursing homes.

“I know a garden plays an important role in the Chinese culture, where people play tai chi, meditate and sense the turn of the four seasons,” the architect says as he enjoys a garden café in the former French concession during an interview with Shanghai Daily.

“A garden offers good colors, fruit and aromatic lawns. It’s also a space for therapy, where I often designed different slopes for pedestrians. I want to adapt European ideas to Chinese nursing homes. But I also want to learn from this country, which is in a period of fast transition, famous for its rich culture and ancient civilization,” he adds.

In addition to nursing homes, another notable work of his was a school complex in France’s St Cirgues Mountain, where it is very windy and often snows in winter. He crafted a steel frame to wrap up the wooden teaching building, the center of which is a yard sprinkled with natural light. The structure protects the building, preventing it from overheating in summer sunlight and giving it an incredibly beautiful look when snow piles up on the steel frame. He also utilized nearby streams to generate part of the power needed for the building.

“I wanted to create a nice inner environment for the students to play, to make them willing to go to the school and proud of it, no matter how bad the weather is,” he chuckles.

Dessus says he believes that environment influences and changes people. A successful nursing home creates an environment that affects the elderly people in a positive way mentally and physically, where they love to stay, participate in more activities and communicate well with their family members and friends.

“No matter if it’s a therapy spa, a nursing home, a mental hospital or a school, my principle is to let people live in a good environment and it’s an architect’s job to create such an environment, not a building to fulfill his vanity,” he says.

While in Shanghai, Dessus set up a Shanghai studio with Detao Group for hosting master classes.

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