Population ageing is one of the most critical challenges facing the built environment industry - and an issue wider than the concerns over an ageing construction workforce.
This fact has been brought into the spotlight following the release of the findings from the latest English Housing Survey (home ownership), which found that, as well as outright home ownership becoming increasingly the preserve of older people, a large proportion of households who own homes outright include somebody with a long-term illness or disability. As global populations age, the UK, with its very particular issues around social care and urban densification, will feel this trend keenly.
Real lifetime homes
The key to delivering good, future-proofed, senior living products is flexibility. Single-purpose buildings are by their very nature unsustainable (arguably some of the most successful buildings are Victorian terraces, able to be adapted into homes, shops, offices, dentists, the list goes on!) and perhaps the most progressive move the industry could make is to get away from the concept of demarcated ‘first time buyer’ and ‘last time downsizer’ products and, rather, think about real lifetime homes that can be adapted to suit the requirements of occupiers at different life stages.
Technology and modern design methods can facilitate this. BIM can be harnessed to help plan for alternative use by differing age groups, and innovative modular construction methods to enable the ‘plug-in / plug-out’ of different components – to re-define interior spaces at different stages and cater for accessible kitchens and bathrooms. Meanwhile, connected IOT devices are already a fixture in many homes, and their prevalence is expected to increase as will their integration into the built fabric of housing – providing real opportunities to, say, monitor health and wellbeing.
This kind of digitally-savvy design approach carries with it the added promise of helping to reduce the burden on the state and the family members who care for those with long term illnesses. There are digital risks here, not least data security and digital isolation, but the industry must meet this challenge rather than let it scare off progress. Whilst the recent Select Committee report on social care has sought to put housing at the core of the government’s approach to supporting our ageing population and their communities , importantly, making this shift towards real lifetime homes will benefit early stage, as well as later life, buyers.
Meeting the challenge today
Age concerns are an issue today – and immediate needs must be met. However, the industry must also take a long-term view and prepare for the needs and wants of tomorrow’s older people – today’s millennials and baby-boomers – who have grown up in the age of the internet, the gig economy and WeWork, and who will have different expectations for their senior living experience. Critically this includes a holistic approach to housing which incorporates infrastructure (hard and soft) and public realm which is responsive and sensitive to ageing. Designers and developers have a role to play here.
Policy and regulation has a role too, and our models of real estate funding, along with legal and regulatory frameworks (including planning), have some catching up to do in order to facilitate the delivery of innovative, future-proofed housing products. Meanwhile we must not lose sight of the fact that ‘new homes’ are not the only answer, models for and incentives to retrofit and repurpose existing stock are a necessity too.
We have seen the impact of incentives on the first-time buyers’ market and, with the potential buying power and evolving requirement of the ‘next older generation’ - ie. today’s 55s and above - we expect to see more from government, and developers, to back the senior living agenda. Demographic change is happening, and a flexible, ‘lifetime’ approach to home design and build will be central to ensuring the health and wellbeing of people of all age groups - and the built environment industry - in tomorrow’s city.
Helen Garthwaite is a construction partner at law firm Wedlake Bell, and co-founder of Tomorrow’s City Today’s Challenge