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July 24, 2020 – Published in Design & Decor Summer 2014 issue

A lovely old building restored to its former glory with an important role to play!

Words: Andrea Christians

Interior design: James Dimech

It’s always a pleasure to see a derelict old building restored to its former glory and this is certainly the case with Dar Kenn ghal Sahhtek. Formerly Sister quarters at Mtarfa, it has been restored, extended and refurbished at a cost of 2.5 million to become a state of the art facility for the treatment of eating disorders in a venture undertaken by the Malta Community Chest Fund. It was a project that would present many difficulties – not only from the architectural angle but also from the interior design perspective as two distinct units were to be created with entirely different purposes.

James Dimech is well known in Malta as an interior designer and apart from a large private client base his past work has recently involved designing the San Anton Kitchen garden and stage sets for L’Istrina in association with the Community Chest Fund. In the beginning, James’s initial involvement was to be mainly in bathrooms but as word of his design prowess spread he soon found himself responsible for the interiors of the entire project which, as James openly admits, was unlike anything he’d ever done before.

“I started researching by looking at other rehabilitation centres around the world and realised that there was a lot to take into consideration that may not at first be obvious, especially when it came to designing the bedroom and bathrooms.”

In the Reception hall the first thing that catches the eye is the centre’s logo that is inlaid into the marble floor. Travertine and crème marfic have been used extensively in this area creating an aesthetic more in keeping with a hotel than a hospital. The marble stairs also add to this effect with the original wrought iron bannisters sand blasted and repainted to be as new whilst still retaining an element of the old character.

Despite being housed under the same roof it is important that patients from the different units do not come into contact with one another. For this reason the two lobbies of the respective units are kept entirely separate by means of opaque glass and have separate entrances.

When it came to the bedrooms all the furniture was customised as the aim was to create a homely environment more akin to a hotel than a hospital.

“The furniture has neutral shades with colour being added through soft furnishings. In the anorexic unit the patients are mostly of a fairly young age with many of them needing to study so we incorporated a work station into the design. This is notably absent in the obesity wing as the aim here was to create more space and for patients to spend less time in their rooms as they need to exercise. There is also a notable lack of extra chairs in the latter. Colour wise I chose three coordinates of the same colour – namely lime, rust and turquoise. The old style high ceilings of the building did present some problems but I made the curtains in line with the height of the wardrobes making it up to the pelmet with plain material. It is an optical illusion that always works well.”

Recessed ceiling with ambient lighting were installed in some rooms whilst in others there were suspended ceilings, all having a master switch directly above the bed.

“When it came to bathrooms there were again different requirements. For example, those of the obesity unit needed to be larger and generally allow for more space. On the other hand the anorexic unit needed to be smaller and the rooms generally warmer. Colours were important too and I used neutrals with a plain tile of two different tonalities combining them differently in all the bathrooms so that each is essentially unique. We used a 30 x 60 tile and in the 5 wheelchair equipped bathrooms there are no shower trays and bars were fitted.”

In the case of the kitchens, again the brief was quite different. In both there is a glass mosaic and quartz kitchen surfaces. The cabinets are made from wood and there are stainless steel appliances. The anorexic kitchen is actually off limits to the patients with food being prepared for them by staff and served in a dining room that has a peaceful aspect of pale green combined with neutral colours. It is separated from the kitchen by a screen.

In contrast the obese kitchen has three workstations where meals can be prepared by patients’ as a re-education of their approach towards food and eating healthily is part of the therapy. The dining area is adjacent to the kitchen and is not screened. More bench seats have been used to provide extra space and comfort and is again an opportunity to dine in peaceful surroundings.

The multipurpose hall was to prove very challenging from a structural point of view, as the original courtyard was roofed over and the area extended by some 8 metres. Gypsum arches in the ceiling replicate the original English design and are in keeping with the era of the building and give something of a palatial effect. The existing marble flooring was extended with coping made from Maltese stone. The furniture is designed for informal meetings and also to accommodate out patients’ with screens that can be erected if need be to create privacy.

Finally, the stonework of the façade was restored and up lit to highlight the arches giving an opportunity to fully appreciate their beauty and form.

Working to transform this once dilapidated building to its present state certainly presented a number of challenges. However, all the research and hard work were worth it when the building was officially inaugurated by the President of Malta George Abela. Today, for James Dimech, Dar Kenn Ghal Sahhtek remains one of the most rewarding projects that he has worked on to date.

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