How can buildings alleviate issues for older people?

Words by Tim Riley, 14 January 2016
A founding director of RCKa, and with experience in delivering large scale regeneration projects and strategic masterplanning, Tim is responsible for delivering the practice's residential work. He also sits on the design review panel for the London Borough of Harrow.

In many ways the issues facing older people are not too dissimilar to those faced by younger generations, says RCKa’s Tim Riley

This article first appeared in the Architects’ Journal

The needs of the elderly may be more acute and more changeable than the younger generations but the principles of good building design can alleviate many issues.

Dual aspect apartments, decent space standards, generous levels of natural light, access to high quality external space and adaptable layouts can be appreciated by people of all ages. Facilities for care and accessibility meet more specific needs but principally combatting loneliness is the biggest issue. This can be alleviated in a number of ways.

Providing high quality housing that encourages older people to move from under-occupied suburban family homes into ‘right-sized’ dwellings in the heart of their communities has a major part to play. By locating these on sustainable town centre sites, residents can benefit from immediate access to both community facilities and best contribute to their wider community. Warehousing older people into low density bungalow developments at the edge of towns is the worst thing we can do and unfortunately this antiquated thinking still prevails within many planning departments.

Providing communal facilities and spaces that encourage and support social activity is obviously part of the solution. However, simply providing the facilities is not enough. Inflexible and ill-considered communal spaces can become sterile, difficult to animate and manage, ultimately contributing to the loneliness of residents. There have been far too many soulless and institutional rooms dedicated to the purpose and instead spaces should feel like an extension of the residents own living rooms.

Residents should be empowered to become stakeholders in the management of developments which can lead to more meaningful and effective use. Furthermore by making certain facilities available for the wider community, spaces become more animated and valuable intergenerational interaction can be encouraged.

Finding the most appropriate design for such spaces is very challenging. The omission of corridors has a large part to play and often the arrangement of inter-connected spaces can improve animation and offer more flexibility. This is an area where designers can prove their worth by engaging with beneficiaries and through spatial testing. That said, adaptability is key to the long term success of such spaces to respond to a broad range of activities and changing needs.

There is great value in the everyday incidental meetings between neighbours. Architects have a significant role to play in encouraging such events, and in doing so, cohesive communities can be forged, encouraging inter-dependence and a sense of security, both highly valued by older people.

Collecting post, emptying bins and buying groceries are all seemingly mundane activities and through technological advances such tasks can all be dealt with efficiently and conveniently. Some would argue that this is a benefit for older people as they may be less mobile but such advances often serve to isolate people from their neighbours.

Through well-considered movement strategies and spatial arrangements architects can establish an appropriate balance between convenience and neighbourliness. In doing so, buildings can persuade residents to venture outside their homes and engage with their surroundings. By making spaces, ordinarily dedicated to circulation, more generous and better connect them to the natural world, they can become social spaces, garden rooms, etc. With the smallest of interventions, such as a bench and a planter, residents can be encouraged to take ownership of circulation spaces, often seen as an inconvenient cost liability, and transform them into shared semi-private reception rooms and assets for the community. As a consequence, social spaces and gardens become more integrated into daily life and entire developments become more animated.

Through socially responsive design architects can contribute to the fight against loneliness, deliver an infrastructure for building communities and enhance the social wealth of residents.