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Retiring to new heights

A Traralgon award-winner takes a bold step in design, writes Stephen Crafti.

A Traralgon award-winner takes a bold step in design, writes Stephen Crafti.

THE Dalkeith Heights Community Building at Traralgon received the regional prize at this year's Australian Institute of Architects (Victorian Chapter) awards.

Designed by architect Adam Dettrick, the design represents a significant paradigm shift in retirement villages. "There are enough faux-Tudor-style retirement homes. My clients (Grace Bruce & J. L. Macmillan Memorial Home) wanted to create a new benchmark," says Dettrick.

Dettrick's brief for the nine-hectare site on the outskirts of Traralgon included 150 homes, one-third now completed, together with a community building. This building was to accommodate an indoor swimming pool, gymnasium and health spa, medical suites, together with facilities such as a pharmacy, library, reading room and cinema. Provision was also to be made for a bar, lounge and restaurant open to the public. "It's fundamental to get the spatial arrangements correct, ensuring sufficient separation between public and private areas," says Dettrick.

Dettrick, who was raised in the Latrobe Valley, appreciates the tension between rural, urban and industrial components of the region. It was this tension that partially informed the design for the Dalkeith Heights Community Building. The front facade, for example, is relatively robust and "muscular" in appearance. The first floor, containing the cinema, is clad in steel. Aluminium battens screen the cantilevered cinema. At ground level, cement-rendered sheets are evocative of the farming community.

In contrast, the opposite side of the building, with a courtyard, has a domestic residential feel. Suggesting a homestead, there's a brick chimney and raked steel roof with striations of colour from grey and black to dark blue. "I wanted to also reduce the impact of the south-west winds for residents," says Dettrick.

He researched retirement homes extensively, both in Australia and abroad. He was keen to create a contemporary environment with thoughtfully considered spaces. "Just because you're designing for older people doesn't mean you literally have to serve up twee English architecture with 'old world charm'," says Dettrick. But he also didn't want hard-edged contemporary architecture that "prodded" the residents. "It doesn't have to be one extreme or the other," he says.

Residents and visitors are greeted by a reception area and lounge featuring double height spaces with timber-veneer ceilings. Polished concrete floors reduce maintenance, and importantly, act as a heat sink or thermal mass. And in the dining area, there are acoustically treated dramatic raked timber ceilings and celestial windows. A brick chimney is a drawcard during the cooler months, while a terrace adjacent to the swimming pool is a focus during spring and summer. To strengthen the connection between indoors and outdoors, Dettrick designed large sliding doors to the terrace.

One of the starting points for his design was the presence of a 400-year-old red gum in the centre of the courtyard. There is also a substantial gum in the building's foreground. "Eventually there will be a putting green, lawn bowls and bocce directly in front," says Dettrick, whose modesty, given the award, is refreshing. "It's important to keep things as simple as possible. Essentially it's a brick building with cement sheeting." For the residents, and the award jury, it's clearly considerably more than this.

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