Text description provided by the architects. The Chris O’Brien Lifehouse (Lifehouse) takes an innovative approach to cancer care that focuses on the patient experience in ways new to Australia. It is the first integrated cancer treatment center in the country, offering everything a patient needs in one place, including ambulatory care, allied health, clinical trials, research, education, complementary therapies and psycho-social support. Although integrated with the existing functions of the Royal Price Alfred Hospital and research facilities at The University of Sydney, Lifehouse is a private, not-for-profit facility serving both private and public patients. It is a registered charity, and all income is reinvested for the benefit of patient care.
Lifehouse is the realization of the vision of Chris O’Brien, a leading Sydney-based head and neck oncologist. In 2006, in a cruel twist of fate, Chris was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and stepped down from his position to focus on his therapy and treatment. But he transformed his personal adversity into a national opportunity, using his experience to fight harder for cancer patients and their families and to advocate for cancer care where research and treatment are integrated. In 2009, Chris lost his battle with cancer, but his vision was brought to fruition in Lifehouse.
The goals of Lifehouse are simple: to make things easier for people with cancer so they do not feel alone navigating the confusing elements of dealing with their illness; to turn new discoveries into better cancer care; and of course, most importantly, to pave a way toward a future without cancer.
Unusual for Australian hospitals, Lifehouse is a nine-story vertical structure. Because of the vertical arrangement, the design team spent a considerable amount of time making the patient journey as natural and comfortable as possible. Discreet parking, a hotel-like concierge, expansive waiting areas, modern design finishes, an abundance of natural light, and intuitive wayfinding support a positive experience as patients enter and navigate the building.
All spaces within the building revolve around a central atrium that rises up through all nine floors and includes an expansive skylight that diffuses natural light throughout the building. All public vertical circulation feeds through this space, which acts as a collaboration area for clinicians and researchers and a place of social interaction for patients and visitors. Glass elevators connect the floors, offering subtle glimpses into the operation of the facility and dramatic views of the floors below. Perforated metal is a recurring design element in the atrium, as well as in the waiting spaces and on exterior panels; the pattern is based on the braille text for the word “Lifehouse.”
The vertical order of the facility reflects functionality—ambulatory facilities are on the lower levels, acute and support zones are in the mid section, and the top two levels house inpatients; the 96 private rooms were purposefully planned in this “prime real estate” to benefit from the expansive views. Many of the rooms also have access to private external courtyards and healing gardens. The research components of the facility are located on a floor below the inpatient areas, encouraging collaboration among doctors and researchers and accelerating treatments from discovery to application.
Taking inspiration from the Maggie’s Centers in Great Britain—a network of centres created to provide support, information and practical advice to those affected by cancer—Lifehouse includes a space called the Lifehouse Living Room to house supportive services, education and treatments that can be used in partnership with clinical care to help manage the side-effects of treatment. Located on the ground floor, the space provides therapies such as massage, yoga, acupuncture, Reiki and Qi Gong. Also located on the ground floor is a non-denominational “reflection space,” offering a private and discrete place for patients and their families to respond to a diagnosis.
The introduction of a building of this scale into the context required a thoughtful design response. To reduce the overall height, a clinical department was set below street level with natural light introduced through recessed landscape courts articulating the building edge. The street façade, which consists of two transparent levels clad in patterned fritted glass, is set back, breaking up the overall mass and responding to the scale of pedestrians. The horizontal glazed blades to the north balance the verticality of the louvers to the south, providing diversity among masses and creating a lively design.
The overall building is conceptually enclosing and protective without being introverted. The exterior façade layering, louvres, patterned glass and perforated screens allow abundant natural light to penetrate the building while providing patients with privacy from those on the outside. The design of the building never attempted to replicate the existing heritage fabric of neighboring buildings, which include a unique blend of Victorian brick facades and art deco buildings. Rather, the glazed facades are more about reflecting and respecting the scale and detail of the existing fabric. Acknowledging the Royal Prince Alfred campus rather than the street, the building is the focus of a future research precinct; the building and main entrance orientate to the main hospital campus and provide an activated yet secure edge to the public domain.