An Architect’s Contribution to the Later Living Housing Standards

Jo Oliveira headshot
Jo Oliveira
Group Design Manager, McCarthy Stone

In the last ten years I have become deeply interested in designing homes for older people. I have found it an incredibly rewarding area to work in, and I am lucky enough to be able to engage with residents and their families to see first-hand the effect good design can have. When I started this journey, my professional curiosity drove me to gather as much information on the topic as I could find from building regulations to national standards, guidance, recommendations, wide-spread suggestions and good ideas.

In all the time I have been developing my design specialism, reading evidence-based research, the narrative around the later living housing scenario doesn’t seem to have dramatically evolved nationwide. Many questions remain persistently unanswered or unclear. What exactly is retirement living? How can we make it more affordable? Why is there still a shortage of dedicated housing for older people? Why is there a limited mix of tenures? And why is it not often seen as an aspiration, and is instead often a needs-based move?

Creating a building is a complex science and a piece of art. The project team must design out all the risk and value-engineer technicalities. At the same time, they must also create a beautiful desirable and user-friendly environment that someone will be proud to call their home and be proud to tell others where they live. All this needs to be done, nationally at scale, and with urgency in order to help solve a looming housing crisis. Yet, this is a time-consuming process, often suffering the known pitfalls of our fast-moving times – a viable commercial strategy, lack of attention to detail, depersonalisation, lack of consistency, all of which can unfortunately sometimes culminate in a generalised lack of perceived value. Sometimes, and more frequently now we, as a sector, can get the recipe just right with high quality design, often standardised, with personal touches and unique features. The housing sector for the ‘third-age’ follows many steps of the mainstream housing market in this regard, with stories of success and missteps to learn from.

Existing literature on the topic suggests the common denominator is a certain lack of clarity. For example, starting with nomenclature: third age, later living, retirement living, assisted living, sheltered accommodation, extra care – can planners, designers, customers and care staff tell the subtle differences between these categories? What does the age-restrictive concept of “retirement” mean for accommodation standards – what is the difference for the over-55, when compared to the over-65, over-70-years-old – when there is no longer a default ‘state retirement age’ and it the threshold is different for men and women?

The market is slowly getting populated by improved and clearer spatial standards, technologies and care initiatives that go above and beyond minimum targets. These are often deemed aspirational, regarded as expensive and out of reach by many, which they absolutely shouldn’t be. Nor do they need to be! Our team works collaboratively to create beautiful homes with “hidden care” features such as adequate materials, patterns and textures. In addition to improved navigation, comfort and safety, the designs also offer beautiful and homely environments.

For me, a single but important cog in the system, I can also see where small changes can be made to create larger differences – these usually implement and validate the ongoing, current research. I continue to use all the influence I have to make the exceptional the norm, and explore ways of overcoming environmental, cultural, economic, political and social differences that narrow the greater focus. Words such as “inclusive”, “adaptable”, “aspirational” and “homely” aren’t mutually exclusive and the stigma around them and how unattainable good design is, needs to be itself “retired”.

This blog was prompted by the Housing LIN roundtable with the University of Stirling on 9 May in London which brought together a select number of organisations to discuss the findings of the DesHCA (Designing for Healthy Cognitive Ageing) project. Jo attended the roundtable on behalf of McCarthy Stone and shared what she learned and its relevance organisationally to designing for inclusion.

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