‘Exemplary’ retirement home wins RIBA Stirling Prize 2023

An “exemplary” retirement home which ticks all ESG boxes has won the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Stirling Prize 2023, the most prestigious architecture award in the UK. Mae Architects’ John Morden Centre in Blackheath, southeast London, has been named the UK’s best new building for its focus on sustainability and for its “thoughtful features designed to prevent isolation”.

An image of the John Morden Centre in Blackheath, London, designed by Mae Architects

Morden College, founded in 1695, is a charity that provides 300 older people with residential and nursing care. Mae Architects added a daycare centre, to the Grade I-listed buildings, which include almshouses designed by Christopher Wren. The new centre houses social and medical facilities as well as a café, an art room and an event space for all residents.

“It is a place of joy and inspiration,” said Ellen Van Loon, jury chair, RIBA Sterling Prize. “It sensitively and seamlessly integrates medical facilities and social spaces, delivering an bold and hopeful model for the design of health and care centres for the elderly. This building provides comfort and warmth and it illustrates how buildings can themselves be therapeutic, supporting care and instilling a sense of belonging.”

The architects brought all functions into a single building, using a cross-laminated timber frame and providing a meandering “spine” which stitches together a series of red brick pavilions. An exterior cloister wraps around an existing large cedar tree on the site and features an overhanging roof, which provides shade and shelter all year round and has built-in seating.

The project has been designed to “encourage connections and counter isolation”. Much attention has been paid to the different needs and abilities of elderly residents, with concealed wooden handrails and places to sit and rest. High-contrast patterns on the edges of floors provide people with dementia with a visual way to navigate the building.

One of the many communal areas of the building, designed to encourage social interaction

“At a time when adult social care is in a perilous state, this award demonstrates that there is hope for the sector and the project offers up a model for others working within health and care, inspiring them to create environments that positively impact on people’s mental and physical health,” said Alex Ely, founding director, Mae Architects.

One of the key aims of the building was to create spaces that help foster a community atmosphere that would help combat loneliness.

“Loneliness and isolation are critical issues, particularly for older people,” said Muyiwa Oki, president, RIBA. “The John Morden Centre’s elegance and efficacy set a high standard for spaces that support healthier, happier and more independent lives. It illustrates the positive potential of architecture to strengthen vibrant and active communities.”

The building also scored high on sustainability. Cross-laminated timber was used to reduce the centre’s carbon footprint, while lime-based mortar and passive ventilation, utilising the building’s chimneys, minimises the energy needed for heating and cooling.

The centre also uses the principles of biophilic design, meaning that it connects with its surrounding natural environment. The focal point of the garden is the large cedar tree, while different seating areas enable people to appreciate the changing natural light.