Learning from new English and Dutch almshouses

Jenny Pannell Headshot
Jenny Pannell
Independent researcher
Alison Pooley
former Deputy Head of School: Architecture and Planning, Anglia Ruskin University

Since their origins over a thousand years ago, almshouses have been providing shelter and care for people experiencing poverty and hunger, plague and leprosy. But in this year like no other in our lifetime, what more can we learn from the almshouse, the oldest form of community-led housing? 

Developing our previous almshouse research, including a Housing LIN Viewpoint and  an earlier Housing LIN Report, our new report for the RICS Research Trust provides ideas and examples of how new almshouses can help to meet housing need and complement local strategies for housing, care and support.  Detailed case studies of new English almshouse developments explore how barriers can be overcome to provide high quality new housing (with limited or no public funding) including partnerships with local authorities, developers and a Community Land Trust. Two Dutch almshouse case studies and the influence of the courtyard model add a European perspective, with a comparison of the local context in both countries. 

Almshouses usually provide direct access to gardens, patios and balconies. Our almshouse research visits took place in 2019 so there is no discussion of the impact of Covid-19, but later contacts with many almshouse charities in 2020 reveal positive aspects of design features and new management initiatives during the pandemic. Courtyards and gardens often enable residents to benefit from the natural environment, exercise outdoors and meet in small (socially distanced) groups outside. As one almshouse resident in Essex said recently:

The communal seating area, arranged as it is within a grouping of raised flower beds, gives a sense of seclusion and intimacy that encourages residents to gather together and chat … Just feeling the sun on your face makes you feel better. That and being with nature (flowers and humming bees) is just so beneficial to the soul...

In contrast to many social housing providers, almshouse charities are still very local and this has been invaluable in 2020. Larger almshouses often have on-site staff: one CEO comments: “We are really lucky having committed to retain the full-time on-site service.”  By keeping older people in their town or village, one of the charity case studies in the RICS report points out that: “residents are classed as extremely vulnerable but being local they have strong family contacts to give support” and most trustees live in the village. For smaller charities with no staff, local trustees (including co-author Alison Pooley) have been especially important in delivering shopping and prescriptions and more generally day to day domestic chores. Beyond this, strong local connections with local trustees has meant they are on hand to help with other issues, including supporting the wider community and the families of residents. New or established links with local volunteer organisations have also been invaluable for both small and larger almshouse charities. 

One of our case study almshouses started an on-site shop, run by a volunteer rota of residents. Other residents have been helping others with cleaning, using the self-service laundry and running gentle exercise classes. The CEO commented:

We feel very strongly that involving residents in this way makes them feel valued and it also provides some distraction from the horrors of the outside world. The support they are providing to the Scheme Manager is also invaluable.” 

Almshouses have seen a lot of challenges over hundreds of years and are already looking to the future and learning from their Covid-19 responses. Examples include helping residents to access and learn to use technology to keep in contact with family; the on-site shop now uses a card reader to avoid the need for cash and the charity may continue this in future for other payments. Another almshouse has a large display board for resident suggestions about what to do once the pandemic is over – and for them to articulate what they would like to do “once we get back to a normal service”. Something we are looking forward to in 2021….

On the back of this blog, we are also pleased to announce that the authors will be joining Nick Phillips (CEO of the Almshouse Association), architects Patrick Devlin (PTEa) and Connie Jaczynska, (Proctor & Matthews) as well as Andrew Bibby (Calder Valley CLT) to discuss the report and consider the future of almshouses at our first HAPPI Hour of the year.  In association with Winckworth Sherwood, the free virtual session takes place on Thursday, 28 January at 4pm. Book here now!

And if you found this blog of interest, c
heck out the 2 YouTube videos made by the Almshouse Association’s Nick Phillips and the Housing LIN’s Jeremy Porteus referring to the RICS Research Trust’s report, along with our Housing for Older People webpages and the almshouses curated page. And talk to us find out how we have been working with almshouses to support their service redesign and improvements.


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