Are we building the kinds of homes we want to live in?

Adam Hartley
I recently attended the Housing Learning and Improvement Network annual extra care conference, and one of the most powerful statements I heard whilst I was there was: “The homes we are building today will be the homes that you will live in in 30 years”.

As a construction professional, I’ll admit that my thinking has often been that I’m delivering homes for other people, not myself. I therefore found myself posing the questions: Will these homes meet my future needs? Will they be the places I want to live in 30 years? Reflecting on this, I believe there are three principles we need to follow to build the kind of homes we want to live in: choice, integration and flexibility.

Choice

Despite the fact our population is ageing, the majority of new homes in the UK are built for and marketed to younger buyers. There are some fantastic organisations specialising in housing for older generations, but the reality is supply is nowhere near demand, and this gap is only going to grow.

Most people in later life live in conventional housing that is not suited to their needs – as we approach our later years, we will undoubtedly want a better choice of where we live.

Some of the extra care developments being built today are very high quality, but they are ultimately specialist developments for one demographic with often limited tenure options. They can come at significant costs which the middle market may not be able to afford. By ‘middle market’ I mean owners of average sized two- or three-bedroom homes whose income and wealth leave them ineligible for social rented accommodation, but unable to afford high end provision.

Integration

I was lucky to attend a workshop where Dr James Brown, Director of Aston Research Centre for Health Ageing, spoke about his experiences working on the Channel 4 programme ‘Old people’s home for four-year olds’. James spoke about his experience on the pioneering programme which tracked the health benefits for residents of the Lark Hill Retirement Village in Nottingham from mixing with a group of four-year olds on a daily basis. These included improvements in cognitive function, memory, reduced trips and falls, and improvements in hand grip strength.

Not only are there clear health benefits of this type of living, but it seems to me that an intergenerational model could be the way forward to address both the middle market problem and the way many of us want to live in later life.

Our European counterparts are already leading the way in this type of living. In Deventer, Holland, students enjoy free board at a Residential and Care Center Humanitas; in Helsinki, Finland, under-25s can access cheap accommodation inside the city’s Rudolf Seniors Home. The success of these schemes lies in their ability to provide clear benefits to both demographics. Students are neighbours to older residents: sharing skills and time in exchange for low or free rent and access to facilities which would normally be beyond their budgets.

In Alicante, Spain the Municipal Project for Intergenerational Housing and Community Services has created 244 affordable, intergenerational housing units in central urban areas designed to tackle serious problems faced by many low-income older persons living in inadequate housing conditions and experiencing isolation, loneliness and vulnerability; whilst at the same time providing decent housing for low-income young people. Residents have widely expressed how the project has increased their well-being, allowing them to be independent yet not alone, live in a decent home with a family-like environment and have a wide range of activities within reach. In addition to accessing high-quality housing at affordable rental rates, young people report gaining knowledge and establishing real relationships with the older persons they assist.

The UK needs to catch up and start thinking about how we can create intergenerational communities and develop these models further. These models are more akin to how we live the majority of our lives and have more appeal to me thinking about later living.

Flexibility

The last thing, and possibly the most important for our industry to address now, is flexibility. The homes of the future need to be designed flexibly, recognising the diverse needs of a diverse population. House builders need to consider how the homes they build for young families can be adapted decades from now to accommodate them as they age.

Flexibility is the standard to strive for – simply put, homes designed today should anticipate the needs of tomorrow. London’s requirement that all new homes are designed to be adaptable is a good step towards this.

Conferences like Housing LIN raise important questions about how we tackle the ageing demographic. The solution here is simple – build the homes that we want to live in: integrated communities where we have a choice of how and where we live, and the flexibility to adapt our homes to our needs.

This article was first published in Building magazine.

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