I was lucky enough to take part in the National Housing Federation’s ‘Futurehack’ session held in London’s Millbank at the start of March. This brought together 50 minds from across the housing sector to tackle those wicked issues that we’ve struggled with for years. What was encouraging was the focus on one of these issues, that of adapting with age, facilitated by the Housing LIN’s Jeremy Porteus (opens new window).
The suitability or otherwise of existing housing for older people is an area that many in the sector are musing over currently and the recent CLG Committee's report on Housing for Older People talks broadly about the need for fundamental rethink and a national strategy.
I don’t think it would surprise anyone if I said that as a sector, whilst we do brilliant things, there are real challenges around some of our older people’s housing. It’s about our service offer but more about the physical fabric of some of our buildings, stock that can be over 100 years old subjected to a raft of adaptations to help people respond to the changes in their physical or mental circumstance.
All of this activity made me start to think more deeply about our older people’s housing and personalising it with my own mother, who has increasing mobility needs but a steely determination to stay in her own home, close to her connections, things she needs, GP, familiar places etc. and away from what she perceives as isolated places for old people. In practice this means continually retrofitting her home with adaptations that are poor in aesthetic design and a constant reminder of her increasing frailty.
It doesn’t need to be like this, people shouldn’t have to move away from their lives, we can design and build better but I want to focus on the adaptations point. Go into the majority of homes that are adapted and you’ll see poorly designed and ugly handrails, pull cords, hoists or stair lifts. I get the point about functionality, production standards and cost but we don’t have to be producing things to the lowest common denominator.
Look to the car manufacturers, they all have standard safety features but they are designed to fit the overall design of the product, to blend in seamlessly and be unobtrusive. This might be because the manufacturer doesn’t want to spoil their design but I imagine it’s also heavily weighted on what the customer wants. The sector has also proven that aesthetics don’t need to carry a premium, a grab handle in a £6,000 car is as well designed as one in a £60,000 car.
So, shouldn’t the design of adaptations be what the customer wants? I may need a pull cord but couldn’t it be better designed, less ugly and less obtrusive? I think the adaptions we have available to us are a classic example of the manufacturer controlling the response to customer need rather than the customer being part of shaping that response. As a sector we have the size and the influence to challenge this, as indeed we and our customers are shaping housing design so should we be shaping adaptation design. People shouldn’t be passive recipients, they have the right to be active participants in informing the things that make life that little bit easier. Useful doesn’t have to be ugly.