It’s tough to be an architect for remote and regional healthcare facilities

Architects working on healthcare facilities in Australia are faced with some pretty unique challenges. It’s an issue that’s not going away as the focus heightens on tackling rural and remote health challenges. Ahead of Australian Healthcare Week 2014, it seemed a good time to take a look at the factors that make these projects unique to gain some insight into how to tackle them.

During the Health Facilities Design and Development 2013 conference, I had the opportunity to speak with Dario Salvatore, Manager at Hodgkison Architects. He’s currently working with Alice Springs on the Hospital Staged Works Contract. The hospital is a 189 bed teaching hospital located immediately south of Alice Springs Town Centre. The hospital serves a geographic area of 1,600,000 km2.

Dario explained there were some key challenges that apply to these environments requiring a different approach: “It’s a big challenge dealing with the lack of resources and high transient population base. People take for granted that they’ll be dealing with one person all the way through whereas in remote Australia, you don’t. You start off with one person and you end up working with three or four throughout the project. As much as it’s a challenge, it changes your thinking from a person-based to a holistic approach. It’s absolutely crucial to get that communication element right, engaging all your stakeholders early on and then throughout.

“You also have to understand the people you’re working with are under a lot of pressure. There are finite resources, limited staff and you’re working in a very extreme environment. It is hugely rewarding, but that’s the reality.”

The other challenge for architects comes with the design itself where Dario warns it’s essential to ensure you are tailoring your design principles to accommodate a harsher environment.

“The design has to be a response to the specific environment you’re in. Alice Springs, for example, has extremely high temperature conditions; we have to design around this. Too easily we forget about what’s happening outside and focus on what’s inside the building. There is a huge focus on patient staff flows, health and safety considerations, etc. Yes, these factors are all very relevant and very critical but working regionally forces a design response to the environment you’re in. We have to factor in that there are extremes and your building needs to respond to those extremes. 

“They require a different approach to a building where you’re not faced with the same outside conditions. Engineering solutions, for example, along the coast for ventilation won’t be the same ones you can apply to central Australia. The air conditioning design criteria would have to change and be differently considered.”

“Remotely and regionally, it’s really starting from the base principles and not taking things for granted and assuming that what you’ve done before elsewhere will apply here, because it won’t.”

As I was speaking to Dario, we discussed some of the lessons he’s learnt from his experience in the project. Here are some of his essentials:

  • Understand the local culture
  • Indigenous inclusion
  • Engage with all stakeholders
  • Listen to your client
  • Educate and learn
  • Understand local industry and expertise
  • Strive to balance specialist expertise with local knowledge
  • Appreciate and respect the resilience of local industry
  • Embrace technology, but with caution
  • Old technology isn’t necessarily bad
  • Future proof
  • Design and develop an adaptive facility
  • Understand the climate and respond

We’ll be looking in detail at the specific construction challenges associated with operating in remote locations during Australian Healthcare Week 2014 from Lahey Constructions Sydney Manager, Martin Pullicin.

P.S I’ve added Dario’s full presentation and a whole heap of other awesome content around health design here.

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