A new model for children’s homes in the UK
I have recently opened a new model of children’s home in Sutton, south-west London, which is the first of its kind in the UK. The project was a long journey from start to finish, spanning several years, and was inspired by my Churchill Fellowship, and I am absolutely delighted with the results – the huge amount of care and thought that went into the design and build is reflected in the look and feel of the home.
"Much of the inspiration for the building came from homes that I visited in Germany and Denmark during my Fellowship in 2018." - Emmanuel Akpan-Inwang, Fellow
The home is a large 1920s former family home in a pleasant and leafy part of Sutton. When my team and I first visited in 2019, the building had been empty for almost 10 years. It was a dark, derelict place, an old people’s home with mouldy walls and carpets, huge gaps in the floorboards and a jungle of a garden. There was even a tree protruding through the wall of one of the living rooms.
Now it is completely transformed, thanks to the vision and support of our social investors, Treebeard; additional building project funders Andrews Charitable Trust, The People’s Postcode Trust and LandAid; initial partners Feilden Clegg and Bradley Studios; research from Lucy Parkinson; designs by our architect, Conrad Koslowksy; and construction by our builders, Romark.
We visited many children’s homes between 2016-2021 across the UK and Finland, and in 2018 I visited Germany and Denmark as part of my Churchill Fellowship. There were a couple of key reflections that we had over the course of these visits. When you think of a child’s home, you might conjure certain images into your mind – a home that has cosy sofas, bright colours, soft carpets. Unfortunately, some children’s homes are not like this – they can feel institutional due to features like fire exit signs over doorways, fire extinguishers in hallways and internal CCTV cameras watching every move. Would you have those in your home?
Many of the homes that we visited as part of our research felt ‘tired’ – they had dated furniture, peeling walls that needed repainting, scuffed carpets that needed replacing, and functional but impractical layouts. It was important to us that we created a space that felt well cared for, warm and calming, and a layout that encouraged a sense of safety, opportunities for play, creativity and shared activities with others. These are especially important for children who have faced substantial trauma in their lives. Ultimately, we wanted to create a home rather than a children’s home, and try to do away with institutionalism. To do this we had to make hundreds, if not thousands of micro-decisions. In many cases we had to challenge the regulatory process, and in others find innovative solutions to problems.
Much of the inspiration for the building came from homes that I visited in Germany and Denmark during my Fellowship in 2018. There were two that stand out. One was Josephine Schneider in Copenhagen. I was impressed by how they managed to create a warm and welcoming space through the use of carefully selected materials and furniture. Another was a home in Kerteminde, Denmark who had worked closely with children and practitioners to create a building layout that encouraged a sense of togetherness and play while at the same time incorporating 'nooks’ where children could be alone if they wanted to. Both projects, in very different ways, showed what could be achieved with thoughtful and careful design.
When we appointed Conrad to help us design the home, we developed a set of key principles together that you can see in the visual below. These principles guided how the building was refurbished, and enabled us to provide a sensitively designed therapeutic and learning environment for children through furniture and layout. It is also a home made eco-friendly through fixtures, fittings and materials.
Our home continues to amaze and delight people when they visit. Some of our favourite features, demonstrating how our home is unique and purposely designed, are explained below. Please do get in touch if you want to know more about these:
- Our work surfaces in the kitchen are made out of stone, and you can see ancient fossils on the surface. Features like this encourage opportunities for learning in conversation - when we visited the showroom, we spent over an hour talking about what the fossils were and we expect to have similar conversations with some of our children.
- We have a ‘spotlight seat’ and two ‘snugs’ – these are spaces where children can go to have some quiet time if they are feeling stressed, anxious or want some space alone.
- All the bedrooms are sound-proofed. We know that noises in the night can be a trigger for some children, so we have made it as peaceful as possible for them.
- All the bedrooms have an ensuite shower room. The ensuites are purposely set on the opposite side of the bedroom and around a corner (a bit like a hotel design), to give children privacy in their own room.
- We have a two-bedroom flat on the top floor with a separate kitchen and living space. This has been purposely designed to give older children the opportunity to practice moving on to their next home, whilst still being able to access support from staff in the home if they get stuck.
- Being sustainable is at the forefront of our minds, so we have solar panels, a heat pump system and used eco-friendly materials to minimise our impact on the environment.
So far, we have had very positive feedback – young people love the bright space and the various rooms they can go to in the home. Local authorities can see the care and attention to detail that has gone into the design, and our architect has been awarded a Rising Star by the Royal Institute of British Architects for this work.
Now that we have completed our refurbishment, the next step on our journey is to welcome some children, which will begin in February 2022. We are hugely looking forward to sharing this wonderful space with them and giving them the opportunity to soak up the warm and homely atmosphere. If you are a young person, or know of someone who would be interested in living here, please get in touch here.
The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.