New approaches for an ageing population

Terry Stocks
As an inclusive society we need to balance the housing agenda discussion. The young need new houses and better transport links to improve connectivity and flexibility. However, another key group is the older cohort of society.

Those in the last part of their career, early retirement and beyond. This group also need ‘right size’ living with flexibility and transport links. Their needs are similar to that of younger people, but set in slightly different context.

I contributed to a white paper, Neighbourhoods of the Future, 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. The potential savings to the NHS and the individual is significant, if occupants can stay safely in their homes for longer. Slips, trips and falls are a major cost to the NHS and often have long term consequences for the person involved. 

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 BIM, modern methods of construction and standardised design are key to this. 

BIM

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 the 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.

Standardised design

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 challenge for the house building sector is how to work together to create these standard design ‘platforms’. Development clients often want bespoke designs. However, in reality given the design and building regulation constraints, the structural form is often very comparable. If this could be acknowledged at the outset, the price point/market differential can sit where it always does with quality of fixtures, fittings and external façade treatments.

Faithful+Gould along with their parent company, Atkins, are taking a leading role across industry in regard to ‘Modern Methods of Construction’ (off-site volumetric, modular and componentised designs). Atkins new subsidiary EDAROTH, which brings a fresh approach to social and affordable housing; recently released a report highlighting 18,000 unutilised brownfield sites across the UK which could be unlocked utilising modern methods of construction to help local authorities address housing shortages at the point of need.  

We are also working closely with the Department for Education and city councils developing and delivering off-site standard designs. The designs are also pushing quality boundaries with the inclusion of ‘passivhaus’ design standards. Passivhaus drives down energy lifecycle costs, which is important for all age groups and any tenure across the housing sector. 

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, and indeed housing for all, is too important for us to do this.

 

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