Iris Murdoch Building case study

Iris Murdoch Building, Stirling University - dementia garden


At the Dementia Services Development Centre in Stirling, the University showcases building design for people with dementia. The dementia courtyard to the north of the building provides a ‘demonstration’ garden, illustrating certain aspects of best practice in designing an outdoor area for this particular user-group, and it also functions as a ‘break-out’ space for conferences, design schools and similar events that are held in the Centre.

Project description

The dementia-friendly garden at the Iris Murdoch Building combines beauty with practicality. The garden has been laid out to include a variety of different types of spaces, allowing people to choose to sit on their own or with others. The layout includes memorable features which will help people orientate themselves in the space and make their way around. The block paving at the furthest extent of the space is laid in a circular pattern, to encourage users to return to where they started their journey, ensuring that they can’t feel lost and as a consequence more stressed and confused.

The garden has been designed to demonstrate some of the important features that should be incorporated into a garden space for people with dementia.

  • Each door to the garden is a different colour and features a matching coloured cue for people with dementia so they can find their way back to the same door they left the building by;
  • The garden provides a safe and secure environment with barrier-free access and no steep gradients;
  • Seating is provided away from the building to prompt movement and fragrant ground-covering plants encourage visitors to bend and take more exercise;
  • This is a garden designed to provide a feast for the senses. Plants like rustling grasses have been selected to provide sensory stimulation. Similarly, a Japanese Maple directs the eye to a central focal point and provides a guide to the seasons, being bright green in Spring and intense red in the Autumn. The metal pergola is constructed from hand-forged steel which gives the metalwork a very organic quality and tactile appeal;
  • There is a ‘window’ in the higher wall which serves as a location for memorabilia;
  • There is a raised bed that allows access without bending as well as an informal seat to sit on;
  • The gate out (for maintenance access) is disguised by its design and the approach to the gate is surfaced in loose gravel, discouraging access by those who are less mobile.

The garden design also makes reference to Iris Murdoch’s love of ‘puddling’ and swimming in rivers. Although it was not possible in this location to provide an actual water feature her love of water is celebrated in the garden by the inclusion of a pebble mosaic incorporating fish swimming through watery waves. On a damp rainy day the pebbles glisten and deepen in colour and the iridescent stones used to make the fish scales and heads sparkle.

Key achievement

As a demonstration garden it has been instrumental in spreading good practice and since it was created over 10 years ago, many people have visited the space and learnt about designing gardens for dementia. The construction of the garden was accompanied by the publication of advice leaflets and the details of these are set out below.

The garden illustrates how it is possible to design for the needs of those with dementia, and at the same time, create a space which is enjoyable for others to use too.

The health benefits

Health benefits from using the garden include relaxation and stress relief; opportunities for socialising; the enjoyment and appreciation of a good view to look out on from offices and training rooms, and the positive effect on mood from sitting out in natural bright light, with the additional benefits for those who venture outside for ‘topping-up’ of their vitamin D.

A designer’s view

“My courtyard design was constructed by a dedicated contractor and together we won a national award. Its design set me on an exciting journey of exploration into designing for people with dementia, which continues to be incredibly rewarding. It is true to say that if a design works for someone with dementia, it will work for everyone – and this garden gives delight and inspiration to a wide variety of users as well as providing many answers to dementia friendly design” (Annie Pollock, designer).

Lessons learnt

  • Although as a north-facing courtyard, the site initially seemed un-promising, because of the low height of the building and its orientation within the site, combined with the angle of the sun in Scotland (very high in the sky in summer), this northerly aspect was much less shady and worked much better than originally anticipated.
  • In a garden actually used by people with dementia the boundaries would normally have to offer a higher degree of enclosure than is the case here. However as a demonstration garden and ‘break-out space’, the decision to use low boundary walls created an open aspect to the north and east, allowing an inspirational view of the surrounding hills which has become a very important feature of the garden.
  • Being part of a north-facing site the paving slabs do become stained more quickly than might be the case on a sunnier site and the university has had to include an annual ‘pressure-wash’ of paved areas as part of their maintenance regime, to keep the garden looking clean and bright.


Annie Pollock, Architect and Director of Landscape Design, DSDC, University of Stirling; Principal, Arterre Landscapes.

Phone: 0131 229 4564. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Note the book “Designing Outdoor Spaces for People with Dementia” jointly edited by Annie Pollock and Mary Marshall to be published later in 2012 jointly by ‘HammondPress’, ‘HammondCare’, Sydney, Australia and the DSDC.