Inclusive architecture for elders can make old age an achievement

17 November 2017

The world’s population is ageing faster than ever before. From private homes and retirement villages to urban planning, how will this megatrend change the way we design? Eleanor Wilson talks to leading researchers and architects to find answers.

As a society, we are horrified by age. We dye our hair, smooth our wrinkles and talk about the subject in euphemisms. What scares us most of all is disappearing – losing partners and friends as the years rack up, having to give up the family home and eke out the rest of our days in a retirement home that looks like a hospital crossed with a cheap hotel.

Society is going to have to confront its age bias – and sooner rather than later. By 2050, the UN estimates there will be more people aged over 65 than children under 15 for the first time in human history. Not only is that too many people to ignore but the numbers are also already beginning to strain our social systems. Aged care facilities are struggling to find workers, while thousands of elderly people fall deeper into isolation.

A home for all

Only in the past few years has designing for age begun to attract much attention, and it’s still considered a niche topic. It carries dull connotations of institutional buildings and developers are unlikely to be excited by the prospect.

“It’s not a good idea to think about ageing as a problem. It’s a challenge, especially an economic challenge, and it’s not one that’s going to go away,” says Matthew Barac, a course leader and lecturer at Sir John Cass School of Art, Architecture & Design at London Metropolitan University. Barac co-authored the 2009 HAPPI Report, a government-funded policy study on the future of housing for ageing residents. His published work since has included the 2013 RIBA Building Futures report, ‘Silver Linings: The Active Third Age and the City’ as well as ‘Design for an Ageing Population’, a report of a 2014 RIBA roundtable.

The challenge for architects is twofold: designing for the elderly has to be physically and socially inclusive. Ideally, a design should account for disabilities and medical conditions, while remaining aesthetically welcoming and encouraging socialisation with the wider world. Medical needs are clear-cut and unavoidable, and, for too long, they have been the only consideration – but human connection is a basic need, too.

Matthias Hollwich, co-founder of New York-based firm Hollwich Kushner (HWKN), is the author of New Ageing: Live Smarter Now to Live Better Forever. Published in 2016, the book explores how society, cities and architects can reshape buildings and public spaces to allow us to age “in place”.

“We have to create excellence in design to fight age discrimination,” he says. “We have to make sure that we build these support systems into our buildings but then also make sure that we don’t design them so that they become a discriminatory component in a design. If you add a grab bar to a regular shower, you don’t like the shower anymore when you don’t need that kind of grab bar.”

Practical and pleasing

HWKN put those ideas into practice with a renovation of the community centre at Morningside Gardens, a ‘naturally occurring retirement community’ in New York. The space, which opened in April, had to promote interaction, and be comfortable and inviting for all ages, with an emphasis on the needs of elderly residents.

The result is a community centre with subtly useful details. Continuous handrails are embedded into the walls as an attractive visual detail that ties the space together. Step-free, seamless floors have a high degree of bounce in case of falls, and counters are set at a comfortable height for standing and wheelchair-seated use. Colour contrasts provide cues to people with poor vision, while rooms are designed to dampen echoes so that hearing-impaired residents can hear each other more clearly.

“We already hear that a lot of young children also come into Morningside. They just love the space, and want to be there and play,” says Hollwich.

Similar principles can be applied to housing, where it’s imperative to preserve the human dignity of senior residents. A retirement home is still a home.

“A fit and healthy 65-year-old doesn’t want to feel like they’re moving into a house designed for someone who gets around in a wheelchair, so you need to design for adaptability,” says Barac, whose research also showed that the common solution of downsizing into a studio or one-bedroom apartment for single seniors may not be ideal. For one thing, he says, “older people tend to have more stuff”. He suggests a small second bedroom and a large living space as a compromise for those who need to downsize.

“They feel torn. They’re being told to pack a three bedroom house into a one bedroom flat, and they feel like they might be moving into somewhere that’s much more sanitised and where they feel constrained. We need to offer them something that feels generous,” he says.

An important factor has been to really make the project part of the city and integrate it into the general public vicinity.

Attractive accessibility

Tomas Stokke is a director and co-founder of Haptic, a London and Oslo-based studio that submitted the winning design in late 2016 for a housing complex project for elderly residents of Drøbak, Norway. The complex features a timber framework that echoes Drøbak’s traditional architecture, and attractive gardens to create a place where people might aspire to live, instead of ending up there by necessity.

“Elderly people are just people and they don’t need to be typecast. They want to live in attractively built places just like everyone else,” Stokke says.

The Drøbak design emphasises social spaces. A public square, communal allotments and landscaped gardens encourage neighbours to interact and spend time outdoors.

“An important factor has been to really make the project part of the city and integrate it into the general public vicinity,” says Stokke. “We’ve created new public and accessible routes, and new public spaces that are available to the residents but also to the general population of the city.”

The Haptic designers were undaunted by the accessibility requirements. “It’s just another design constraint – we all have to make sure that the walls are properly insulated and that we capture the sunlight to create attractive spaces. And, for us, we think of these constraints as opportunities,” Stokke continues.

Mobility is one of the biggest isolating factors for older urban adults, explains Stefano Recalcati, an associate at Arup who led a 2015 inhouse research project titled ‘Shaping Ageing Cities’.

“A person aged over 80 is able to walk no faster than 2km an hour and for no more than ten minutes. So, if an older adult is not able to find all the services to fulfil their basic needs within a radius of 400–500m from their home, they are cut off from the city,” he says.

According to the Arup study, the historic centres of Lisbon and Paris are home to high concentrations of adults over 65 because the buildings tend to have active commercial frontages, meaning that a resident can find everything they need within a block or two. In most other European cities, older residents are concentrated around the fringes, since urban centres can be hostile to those with mobility issues or those who get tired easily. Combined with the fact that older people drive less, this keeps senior adults stuck in the suburbs, where public transport and services may not be easily accessible.

In it together

“Small things can change the quality of life,” Recalcati says. “For example, in the public realm: more benches, trees that are able to provide shade and traffic lights that allow more time for crossing the street. Those interventions are not expensive for the municipality or for the citizen because they’re part of the normal budget.”

Then, there’s the cost of living centrally in major cities, which is continually rising out of reach. At the same time, older adults without a tidy superannuation fund are the seniors most at risk of isolation. To change their situation with architecture, a development needs to be accessible financially as well as physically.

“If you could build housing for independent living for older people or various kinds of tenancy using private or for-sale housing to leverage proper proportions of affordable housing incentivised by local authorities or government, that would be a good way of promoting affordability,” Barac says.

One potential solution is the concept of co-living, in which people of a variety of ages return to an all-in-together lifestyle. In one form, it involves connecting older people with spare rooms to student lodgers. The students get a subsidised place to live; their landlords get companionship and the chance to learn skills such as using the internet.

“One of the reasons why, in our older age, we are usually not able to reach certain kind of services is also because of the digital divide,” says Serena Girani, Recalcati’s colleague at Arup and a fellow researcher on Shaping Ageing Cities. “Just allowing older people to understand the language of the digital age could be useful in letting them take part in the life of our cities.”

Hollwich’s Skyler concept takes co-living further. It’s a prototype residential skyscraper designed to be lived in from birth to death, featuring family duplexes, ‘micro studios’ and apartments intended for intergenerational co-living. Shared amenities invite residents to live cooperatively in close contact with one another.

It seems a clever solution to skyrocketing house prices, lonely seniors and a penniless younger generation. Making it happen on a large scale will require the same shift in thinking for the general populace that architects must make in their own approach, if they are to create the buildings we need in the limited time available.

“The more we start to treat ageing as an issue that is about us and not about them, the more central it’s going to become to all of us,” Barac says.

Normalise the natural

In workshops, Hollwich invites people to think about their favourite activities, such as family barbecues and library visits with friends.

“What do we need to do so that you can do that all life long and not just today?” he asks. They consider the impact of losing friends and being unable to drive, and the future seems a lot closer.

“It suddenly opens the eyes,” he says. “There is something practical, so the goal is clear, because it is really about the enjoyment and beauty of life in the future.”

Convincing developers, meanwhile, may be a matter of emphasising the size and buying power of the over-65 demographic.

“When a residential developer doesn’t really pay attention to that kind of generational shift, then they may not really be able to sell or rent a product in the near future,” Hollwich explains.

Girani points out that, ultimately, accessible design is beneficial for everyone. “Not only do we have to make it inclusive for people with reduced physical capacities but we should also think about people who see the space completely differently – like children,” she says.

Stokke concurs, saying, “[The Drøbak designs] are just good buildings that the elderly can use throughout their lives. We try not to make the distinction.”

As the senior population grows and age becomes more visible, design may be the key to whether society reacts with fear and resentment or learns to embrace the idea of growing old. Inclusive architecture can be a teaching opportunity to emphasise old age as an achievement and a chance to savour the best parts of life.

“These buildings should look and feel aspirational,” Hollwich says. “Ageing is the best thing that can happen to us.”

The new almshouse will be built around a courtyard garden.
Witherford Watson Mann’s design for a contemporary almshouse in Southwark.
The Drøbak site design incorporates open spaces to foster social activities.

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