COVID-19 could be the impetus needed to drive innovation and generate new business models, particularly in the “broken” aged care and office sectors in Australia.
That is according to Tara Veldman, the newly appointed managing director of architecture firm Billard Leece Partnership (BLP), which is renowned for its work in social infrastructure design.
“There are so many things that need to be rethought about how we look after our elderly,” she told The Australian Financial Review. It was COVID-19 and the royal commission into aged care that could drive those changes, she said.
One model that exists in the Netherlands that Ms Veldman would like to bring to Australia is a co-living community for both university students and the elderly.
“We are talking to a few clients of ours at the moment, because we design both student accommodation and aged care. In the Netherlands they basically give the students cheap or free rent for doing tasks around the aged care place. The older people love talking to the younger people but the younger people also love talking to the older people,” Ms Veldman said.
“And if you look at what’s happening in Victoria with underpaid aged care workers who are going from job to job to job to make ends meet (and then potentially spread the virus), you can see there’s just not enough staff and I think the aged care commission will focus a lot on staffing models.”
However, the challenge was finding the clients, with money, who also see the benefits of being innovative in this space.
“But if someone thinks they can make a dollar out of it, that’s when things will start to shift,” she added.
The healthcare sector, on the other hand, was not broken but just needed to be “tweaked” according to Ms Veldman, who said hospital design and processes had proven resilient during the pandemic.
Their work on the Campbelltown Hospital coincided with the pandemic and as a result one of the wards they designed was built in just 58 days, in case it was needed for the pandemic. “Luckily we never had to use it,” she said.
“If anyone understands how to deal with an infection it is a hospital. But the talk around town is that this isn’t the last [pandemic], so it is about being able to quickly transform a space, such as a ward, for another event like this. It’s not that difficult, it’s just about tweaking things, such as designing don and doff [putting on and taking off personal protective equipment] spaces at the start of a ward”.
Nevertheless, there was plenty of scope to improve hospitals from a wellness aspect, which is key area of focus for the firm.
For example, BLP was behind the intensive care unit at The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, with a large glazed area and roof lanterns designed to give patients daylight and sight lines to the sky.
In Sydney the firm recently completed the renovation of the St Vincent’s Hospital emergency department, with a focus on reducing violence, once again by creating a connection to the outdoors and natural light.
One way to improve hospital design in Australia, also based on innovation from the Netherlands, was to making hospital bedrooms smaller to encourage patients to get up and out and moving more quickly after surgery, Ms Veldman said.
Another was to build single-bed rooms.
“In the Netherlands, they said if we are going to single rooms then we can actually cut our bed base by 25 per cent, because we know that in a single room people get better more quickly because they don’t get as many infections.”
“Hospitals are looking at it but the issue here is that health is election driven and no one wants to announce fewer beds, so we don’t close the loop well enough.
But one other sector ripe for disruption is the office market, according to Ms Veldman.
“Why do we all head into the city into a multi-storey building and shuffle up a lift and all hang out together to sit behind a computer?” she said.
“Do you need to all get together? We have 75 people in our Sydney office, but at what point are we really doing something that needs all 75 of us together?
“Workplaces are fascinating, because the model is kind of broken and in aged care the model is kind of broken.”
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