Delivering human connection through meaningful architectural design

Chad Brown, Group Director – Education & Communities, Partner at ThomsonAdsett

The under investment in palliative care in Australia is a sad reality that is again in the spotlight, but should not be ignored.

A report commissioned by Palliative Care Australia calls for an overhaul of the palliative care system in Australia and an additional annual investment of $365 million to bring the system up to speed in a post COVID-19 world.

The National Palliative Care Strategy 2018 identifies that palliative care is not equally available for all Australians. In 2012 the Federal Government’s study into palliative care found that in Queensland there were 3,700 children with life-limiting conditions.

At that time there were only two children’s hospices in Australia. One in Victoria and another in New South Wales. This led to the development of Hummingbird House Queensland.

The state-of-the-art children’s hospice by ThomsonAdsett, finished in 2016, is the only one of its kind in Queensland and took the total of children’s only hospice facilities in Australia to three.

Hummingbird House gave us important insights into how architectural design can contribute to end-of-life care for all people. In particularly for children and teenagers and the impact on their families.

It highlighted the tight bonds that exist between design, aesthetics and emotions.

The design solution for Hummingbird House was a direct result of an empathic and human-centred design process involving an extensive briefing and engagement process that included workshopping and research.


Many lessons in engagement and therapeutic design were learnt during the planning and design stages of the Hummingbird House project.

A built environment in which a child is cared for has a strong impact on the child and can also profoundly affect the child’s family.

This human-centred process has underpinned an almost decade-long process where ThomsonAdsett has sought to engage with its clients and users in a different and meaningful way.

Having a diverse group of users at the same table is a key element of all our workshops. The sharing that occurs with the users is often as valuable as the information the design team takes away.

Workshops are not about finding the solution. This needs to be communicated so that expectations can be thoughtfully managed.

Workshops are structured into focused exercises to deliver sharing around specific themes.

Themes explored are about experience and not limited to functional outcomes.

Designers need to be at the table to hear firsthand and actively participate and share their own experiences – this enables trust to develop.

Workshops can be about the big picture and detail. We structure exercises in the workshop to suit.

At Hummingbird House we achieved everything its name suggests – a warm and welcoming home away from home.

The design had to incorporate basic requirements in terms of facilities, but it also had to be a fitting building for what is a wonderful environment.

As a team we talked a lot about the link between the building and the nature that surrounds it.

There was a deliberateness to create a home away from home environment and experience.

The children that visit the house are guests, not patients or residents.

Guests require a special level of care and attention and this is realised in the care and attention achieved in the spaces, choices and service.

Shortly put, Hummingbird House was intended to be more than just a standalone hospice facility with paediatric palliative care services.

It had to be a place where families could come to find peace, support and rest in their time of need.

The home that helped loved ones discover moments and create memories that would last a lifetime.

And just as a house works as one with its many rooms, the centre offers flexibility to cater for the needs of its many occupants, from the guests and families themselves, to its dedicated volunteers and professional staff.

By creating flexible environments where guests and relatives can control furnishings, light, and climate, the users have personal control over the environment and can create a temporary home.

Creating a stable environment for the relatives and guests helps facilitate a healing atmosphere.

Colour, form, shape and scale are also important considerations and a child’s scale is quite different from that of an adult, so a flexible design approach is needed.

Buildings should meet not only the physical needs of the guests and the families but also their cultural and spiritual needs.

At Hummingbird House there is a room dedicated for children after they have died. This temperature-controlled space provides families with the precious gift of time, as their child can remain there for a number of days.

There has been great demand for this room, named the Hummingbird Suite, and including more than one in any future hospice project would be a must.

Focus must lie on creating a health care facility that offers professional palliative care, while facilitating a place for guests and relatives to spend their last time together in a dignifying and comfortable manner.

Hummingbird House has a range of accommodation options including eight ‘guests in-care’ bedrooms, and three two-bedroom adaptable apartments.

Among the design features are an outdoor cinema space, a pool and landscaped gardens. The design also features a rooftop space, which can support workshops and events.

Making spaces, like a rooftop, flexible for the unexpected we have learnt helps create magical experiences.

For example, at Hummingbird House staff held a beach party on the roof terrace for a child who was not expected to make their first birthday.

They trucked in sand and set up an inflatable pool allowing the child to have the party of a lifetime, before the child’s death, a few months later.

Architects must dream big. Think about how to incorporate flexible design so opportunities that would normally occur outside a facility can be held in-house.

It makes for a special experience for the guests and families and something ThomsonAdsett strives to do with every project.

By providing thoughtful and flexible spaces for families caring for a child with a life-limiting condition, Hummingbird House delivers human connection through design.

Personally, to be one of the architects involved in the Hummingbird House project was an amazing opportunity, and one which will stay with me throughout my career.

While it has been four years since Hummingbird House was completed, its engaging design and build process is still helping raise awareness and generate public discussion about palliative care, including the specific needs children with life limiting conditions have, as well as the families that love and care for them.

This article was originally published by Hospital + Healthcare here.