Age Friendly Housing: What is needed for a step-change?

The newly RIBA published Age-Friendly Housing (opens new window) by Julia Park and Jeremy Porteus is a highly valuable guide for commissioners and designers of housing for older people.  A compact book, it nonetheless provides deep insights into the many design considerations - small and large - that impact on the experience of residents.  It manages to act as both a reference source and a design guide, whilst gently questioning the many misguided presumptions and standard responses that have tended to characterise elderly housing in the UK.  By widening the lens to include ancient housing solutions like almshouses, as well as carefully chosen case-studies from both within and outside of the UK, the book should give confidence to talented architecture practices to tackle this field.

In the UK, our rapidly changing demographic, together with unprecedented funding pressures on sheltered, extra care and other forms of specialist housing mean that business as usual will not deliver the type and quantity of housing we need.  Though the case-studies show there are innovative solutions out there, they remain exceptional and niche - given that nowadays, almost all of us will live into old age, housing fit for ageing should be neither of these.  We have been far too accepting of unsuitable housing and its effects on people’s lives, from increasing burdens on underfunded social care, to exacerbating the progress of dementia and Alzheimer’s.  This lack of action may be attributable to at least three overlapping factors:

  1. Demand for all housing more generally outstripping supply creates a situation where housebuilders can churn out generic housing for the easiest common denominator.  Whilst demand remains high, poor quality housing will always sell and there is no impetus to innovate. 
  2. Planning policy doesn’t have the tools to intervene and plan for specialist housing.  Currently, there are only three residential categories in planning (use-classes C1, C2 and C3) and the distinctions between them are too crude and arbitrarily defined.  This means that local authorities cannot plan for a wide range of housing – they must rely on providers who, in turn must compete with financially dominant developers and housebuilders for land.  Many of the case-studies in the book exist precisely because the land is taken out of the equation, through community land transfer or through ancient ownership limited by charitable constitution, such as almshouses. 
  3. Housing development and management are often disconnected.  The book shows clearly the value of common spaces in housing schemes, but these require management.  Flexible care and support even more so.  It is also telling that the book’s case studies are generally smaller housing providers, where development and management teams can communicate more readily.  My own experience of larger housing providers is that development and management teams often don’t join up well, resulting in schemes that are harder to manage.  As a result facilities close down; services and spaces become degraded. 

What is needed for a step-change? 

The wider housing market is a well-recognised problem and we can only continue to lobby for reform, hoping the government wakes up sooner rather than later.  Planning is more immediately reform-able, though many opportunities were missed in the recently revised NPPF.  The London Plan now has explicit targets for elderly housing - though far too modest - and has acknowledged the need to reform housing use-classes.  The unsustainable funding of social and health care is extremely worrying, but also may provide the impetus needed to precipitate real change.  For example, the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust are pioneering flexible support in a campus environment, where younger people can be attracted to live and create more intergenerational communities.  Key to this is shifting away from the idea of separate categories of housing, to flexible housing within which categories of support and care can be provided.  Why should we have to move to a new house when our needs change, if change is an inevitable and fluid characteristic of modern life?  Pushing this further, can we begin to de-categorize care and support? 

There is a huge amount of evidence that informal social networks providing support can significantly delay the need for formal care.  In our practice, Matter Architecture, we’ve been working on independent housing for elderly people in which they have the space and facilities to support one another, because from the qualifying age of 55, many of the residents remain fit and active.  We’re now embarking on a feasibility study with Camden Council to take this a step further and develop a model for intergenerational housing, revolving around informal support across the ages.  We are also delighted to have been awarded an Innovate UK grant to research and develop an intergenerational housing model. Central to our work is an understanding that we all have needs, throughout our lives.  Older people have as much to offer younger people as vice versa.  Intergenerational schemes to date have focused on young people helping older people, but the potential is for a much more mutual relationship. 

In the main, the housing problem is one of quality – many of the recommendations of the book apply just as much to general needs housing and if we are to mainstream housing suitable for ageing, what we really need is better housing. 

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Posted on by Angela Cavill-Burch

We need to design flexible spaces that are big enough for use of equipment . as we age we may need less rooms but each of those rooms may need to be a lot bigger especially if we use a wheelchair. Architects assume a double bed use in the master bedroom making the room way too small if one of a couple has to use a hospital bed, extra care units assume that all will be ambulant making the wetrooms too small to use a trolley or recliner commode. Use of stay put policies for people that are immobile is criminal.

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