As Australia’s level of urbanisation continues to increase, higher-density buildings with mixed uses are becoming more prevalent in our cities.

As space becomes tight, we’re increasingly building up, and this is not just to meet housing demand. Right across Australia we’re seeing designers turn to high-rise for a variety of building typologies and also to combine a variety of building typologies.

But until recently, it would have been inconceivable to consider high-rise and seniors living as compatible. By its very nature, designing for aged care means access and mobility are paramount, so it’s only natural then that flat, sprawling retirement home facilities have become the norm in Australia.

But Australia is ageing as fast as it’s urbanising, and in recent times we’ve seen a host of new developments that are catering to those looking to retire in the city.

A new project by Woods Bagot in Adelaide has been dubbed by the firm as “radically mixed-use”, that is, they believe it marks a fundamental change in the concept of mixed-use buildings.


Ten different services will be squeezed within the 18-storey Uniting Communities’ tower, including retirement living, disability respite and specialist disability accommodation, retail tenancies, a community services hub, convention and meeting space and workplace.

The firm suggests that it will generate a ‘one-stop’ shop experience for the South Australian community and its full range of stakeholders, including the ageing and disabled.

“The redevelopment will deliver the best quality community services, across a wide demographic spectrum, within a welcoming and vibrant environment that attracts and builds a healthy and sustainable community,” says Woods Bagot associate, Alex Hall.  

“We believe it will become Adelaide’s premier CBD social and community services hub.”


Cardinal Freeman retirement village Sydney. Image: Fairfax

The Uniting Communities’ development is not the first high-density aged care facility in Australia. Mid-rise and apartment-style retirement and aged care accommodation is becoming particularly favourable among church and charitable groups who own land in urban centres.

Two examples are the Cardinal Freeman retirement living, in Ashfield, Sydney, by Allen Jack + Cottier, and Rathdowne Place, a six-storey 162-unit aged care facility in Melbourne's Carlton by DWP|Suter’s, both of which inject aged care into the ‘vertical village’ concept.

Rathdowne Place Aged Care by DWP Suters with Jackson Architects. Image: DWP Suters

The difference with the Uniting Communities’ project, however, is that it brings together a wider mix of residents and activities.

"It is quite a different concept to integrate that retirement living in such an active building," Simon Schrapel, the Chief Executive of Uniting Communities told The Australian Financial Review. "There's been other high-rise exclusively independent living units, but nothing of this sort of mix and has people living and resident with other people who aren't old or part of the aged care development."


The shift towards medium and high-density mixed-used buildings is also being seen in education architecture.

Renowned school building specialists, Hayball is currently working on the design for Victoria’s first vertical school at South Melbourne Primary School and Grimshaw Architects and BVN Architecture recently submitted a DA for New South Wale’s first high-rise school (new Arthur Phillip High School and neighbouring Parramatta Public School).

It was also a major talking point of the Learning Environments Australasia Conference held in May, which gathered some of Australia’s finest architects in the sector under one roof. Vertical schools in the context of the growing city and the end of the sprawling single-storey development was hotly debated at the conference, prompting Hayball Director Richard Leonard to suggest that Australian educational design is moving away from the “fortress school.”

"Land in the inner city is always a challenge and that means putting more students onto sites," he told Fairfax Media. 

“We are going to have to get used to a different idea of what school is."

"We have to rethink how the school can share with the city and how the city can be part of the school by using public parks, gymnasiums and the community getting use of the school facilities like art rooms and technology spaces." 


But Hamilton Wilson of Wilson Architects and Liam Proberts of Bureau Proberts have both warned about the risks associated with designing high-density developments.

“The risk with high-rise developments is that they can be devoid of character or a sense of place or identity,” says Proberts.

“In this regard, we need to be adventurous in finding solutions that exceed client expectations and make a positive contribution to the city.”

Wilson makes a similar point with regard to education facilities:

“The school… still [needs to] feel connected to its overall community of learners so students do not feel isolated from each other and their teachers,” he suggests.  

“They still need to be connected to the environment without the sense of being sealed in a high rise as many workers within cities unfortunately experience.” 

Alex Hall of Woods Bagot says his team addressed this challenge at Uniting Communities by creating distinctive elements within the building that celebrate the diverse expressions of community.

“Having up to 10 different functions within the one building might seem for many a significant challenge resulting in a noticeable loss of brand or identity,” says Woods Bagot.

“However…the building is about creating a shared identity whilst expressing distinct ‘neighborhoods’ all within the one building which celebrates unity through diversity.”