Vertical retirement villages: On the up!

Maarit Heinonen-smith head shot
Maarit Heinonen-Smith
Associate Director, IBI Group and Lead for Retirement Living & Senior Care

By mid-2021 with vaccination rates high and occupancy starting to tick up, many UK housing-with-care providers have started to re-evaluate their future plans in light of lessons learned from Covid-19. With this in mind, and as highlighted in the RE-COV study report, many organisations are evaluating changes in their mix of service offerings and building designs, as well as their use of technology and organisational expansion and growth.

Inspiration for new ideas could be sought from further afield such as North America where the housing-with-care sector is more mature, and where more service offer models and building designs available, including vertical retirement villages. IBI Group’s experience in designing vertical solutions for our clients in Canada provides interesting insights that could be transferable to the UK context.

Exploring the vertical retirement village concept

Vertical villages combine all current living options available to older people in one large development, often vertically, consisting of 250-300 apartments in one development. They offer the full continuum of accommodation with care, from independent living to extra-care to memory care and full personal care, and invariably provide options to rent or purchase.

Operators offer a selection of ‘care-ready’ studio, one-bed or two-bed apartments, each of which can cater for frailty, mobility and cognitive impairments, supported by a care package tailored to the specific needs of the individual or couple. Support can be added if or when needed, including offering what would, in the UK, require a move into a residential care or nursing home.

I believe that the vertical stacking of apartments caters very well for the needs of people with dementia, as there are often few corridors, whilst communal areas are located at the heart of each household. In Canada, such as in the IBI Group-designed developments for Shannex Parkland Retirement Living (opens new window), there is an extensive choice of apartment size and types available for people with higher care needs. And with Covid-19 teaching us the importance of external space, these developments also include a variety of outdoor spaces with ground floor gardens and terraces, to sunrooms and roof terraces on upper levels.

Vertical retirement villages are therefore well-suited to densely populated city or town centre locations, since they require smaller site areas than traditional three-storey apartment buildings. Village residents, care and other staff benefit equally from living in urban centres with proximity to all amenities and opportunities for intergenerational interaction. Mixing apartments with an extracare housing scheme, backed by shared communal facilities, also ensures a mix of residents - keeping residents active, engaged, and reducing the stigma of the care home being perceived as end-of-life care.

Within urban environments come opportunities to combine a village development with other uses, including shared cafés and restaurants with the wider public, community hubs, GP surgeries, or childcare and nursery facilities. Whilst a mixed-use approach makes such developments more viable by creating extra income, they also bring vibrancy to the development, and place older people at the heart of their communities.

Vertical retirement villages in the UK

Vertical villages, with or without housing for care staff, are uncommon in the UK. However, new-build precedents have been set by for example in Life Care Residence’s Battersea Place (opens new window) which offers a range of one, two and three-bed apartments and penthouses overlooking Battersea Park with a range of hotel-inspired amenities and 24-hour care; Nightingale Place (opens new window) by Audley Villages in Clapham, London; and the ExtraCare Charitable Trusts’ Solihull Village (opens new window) with 261 apartments.

In the UK, however, issues involving scale, massing and location of senior living developments is changing in the post-Covid landscape. Introduced in late 2020, the new Class E planning regulations for England aim to re-calibrate the uses of property to provide more flexibility in responding to the re-purposing of town centres. Whilst the new Class E protects local and community facilities, it also enables changes to the use of retail, commercial and professional services property classifications.

Recent examples of where this new flexibility has enabled forward movement include the City of London Corporation’s plans to convert vacant commercial office space to provide 1500 new homes and flexible workspace for London’s creative and cultural sectors within the ‘Square Mile’. The Retirement Village Group has also announced its plan to build up to 5000 homes across 40 urban locations in the UK, including schemes built on former office block and garden centre sites.

There will, no doubt, be further developments in thinking and planning for innovative approaches to housing and senior care provision in re-designed urban environments.

In my view, care home provision as we know it is in the midst of change due to Covid-19 and is experiencing funding, workforce, and demographic pressures. Whilst these issues are not insignificant, change also provides opportunities for new ways of thinking and new approaches for overcoming longstanding problems. We believe valuable lessons can be learned from the Canadian market, introducing fresh ideas to UK retirement living providers and developers to tackle UK-specific problems, looking at different ways in designing the way we deliver care in a housing setting, and benefitting from lessons learnt. We need take heed and move upwards and onwards to meet the aspirations of people in later life and improve their range of housing choices, including vertical living. 

Maarit Heinonen-Smith is an experienced, qualified architect with years of experience in high profile award-winning extra care housing, retirement villages and care homes located throughout the UK.

At IBI Group, Maarit specialises in front-end design in architecture for older people and people with disabilities, designing bespoke and inspiring residential architecture which allows for flexibility within the design for the changing needs and individuality of the residents with a consideration to their health and well-being.

IBI Group are proud to sponsor the Housing LIN’s Health Intel (opens new window) webpages. And, if you found this blog of interest, you can also read a range of other resources on housing for older people on our dedicated webpages here.

Lastly, if you would like to find out more about how the Housing LIN can support you develop your housing for older people strategic vision and/or operational plans to meet the future accommodation needs of older adults, including for people living with dementia and their carers, please email us at:


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