We talk a lot about building new houses and better transport links for millennials who want better connectivity and more flexibility. What we don’t talk enough about is our ageing demographic and how we need to adapt our infrastructure to meet their needs.
I recently contributed to a white paper, Neighbourhoods of the Future, on this issue, and one thing was clear – our homes and neighbourhoods are not fit for purpose to meet the needs of an ageing population. The current state of housing – from inflexible layouts and multi-level steps to door thresholds and electrical points – is making life unnecessarily difficult for elderly residents.
There are many ways we can address this, but from a design, engineering and project management perspective, it hinges on embracing new technology and ways of working and changing the way buildings are constructed from the ground up. I believe Building Information Modelling (BIM), modern methods of construction and standardised design are key to this.
Building Information Modelling
BIM isn’t just about the digital outputs; it also facilitates engaging social, stakeholder interaction. It provides certainty that what we deliver reflects what we intended at the project’s inception, and what was expected by the end-user. If we set out to create an accessible building, it helps ensure we deliver one. This approach increases inclusivity as we’re able to better show what is being planned via 3D images and walk through models – this kind of visual engagement is particularly important for an ageing cohort, so they can see, and give feedback on, where they might live in future. This allows better understanding and comment, and ultimately a more insightful design and specification process. It ensures the older generation feel they are being listened and responded to in the same way as the younger generation.
Only by acting in this way can we create social infrastructure that serves its intended users and reflects the diverse needs of a diverse population. When we work in silos we become misaligned, not only in the work at hand but in our expectations of outcomes. BIM helps us pull these silos together.
A standard design approach, facilitated by BIM, can help us tackle what looks like a complex and expensive problem – creating thousands of bespoke developments to house a diverse population. BIM, in conjunction with a standard modular or component approach to design, can produce cost effective solutions that enable housing that is fit for purpose for an older or younger demographic, but which utilises common components to provide flexibility of layout to serve changing needs. There are already solutions out there capable of delivering this.
Such an approach would provide manufacturing facilities with the means to mass-produce assets, which helps lower cost while raising the quality of the end product. This would help us move away from the current feast or famine situation brought about by individual orders and bespoke requirements.
A standardised approach has already been adopted in the education sector with schools now being developed at very competitive unit rates and to a high level of quality and specification. Faithful + Gould led the design team on the recently completed 1,200 place Arbourfield School for Wokingham Borough Council. This school provides a first-rate, high-quality learning environment that responds to end-user needs whilst using standard components. We can take the lessons learned and success stories from serving the needs of our younger population into how we serve our elderly.
If the industry said ‘this is something we need and we’re going to respond in a standard way’ there’s no doubt in my mind we could provide what our ageing population needs.
We need to start implementing BIM and standardised design now if we want to deliver homes and neighbourhoods that meet the needs of a 21st century society. We can’t bury our heads in the sand; the residential sector is too often guilty of waiting until a problem lands instead of preparing for it in advance. Our ageing population is too important for us to do this.