The Blog

Architecture and the Effects of Human Ageing

As an architecture student I've been fascinated by the effects of human ageing and its relationship with architecture. The subject of ageing is a topic of much debate for the government and media, but it has received somewhat less attention in the field of architecture - particularly in the UK.

John Killock, architecture graduate from the University of Westminster. John has a Masters in Architecture at The University of Westminster. This research project has been made possible with the support of the RIBA Boyd Auger Scholarship.

As an architecture student I've been fascinated by the effects of human ageing and its relationship with architecture. The subject of ageing is a topic of much debate for the government and media, but it has received somewhat less attention in the field of architecture - particularly in the UK.

Longer life-spans are a sign of improved healthcare and consequently people are able to develop greater levels of skill and knowledge than ever before. Despite this, in the UK we often accept stereotypes implying that old people are frail, and unable to remain productive members of society. Many of these stereotypes are outdated, and have been reinforced by a history of institutionalised care. Now, older people have different ambitions, lifestyles and expectations than the generations before, meaning many of these stereotypes are outdated. Despite the significant changes in this older demographic, architecturally there have been few alternatives offered to the traditional accommodation types available.

So what are your options as you reach old age? Currently many empty nesters choose to stay in their current accommodation which is often spatially surplus to requirements although some people downsize to a smaller property. There are almshouses which, more often than not, manage to facilitate a level of neighbourliness and include some form of common area and communal gardens. The problem is that these make up an extremely small fraction of the housing stock and often require the tenant to fulfil certain criteria in order to live in the property. There are also sheltered accommodation projects, and granny annexes for the few who have a suitable property (and who are happy to live adjacent to their offspring). For those who can afford it there are also retirement villages - many of which are separated from mainstream society, and then there are care homes. Where would you want to live? As a student I hadn't given it much thought until recently.

There is another model which is slowly establishing itself in the UK called cohousing - an intentional community. If you're raising your eyebrows - it may be different to what you're imagining. Cohousing is often confused with a commune by those who do not know much about it, but it is different. Firstly, you have your own autonomous house, flat or accommodation unit with its own sleeping areas, kitchen and social space, just like any other typical home. Your house is part of a group of houses but what is different is that each house benefits from the use of a number of shared common facilities. Such facilities nearly always include a 'common house' with a large kitchen and multi-purpose room. Many are more extensive, including a meeting room, an office, a games room, a teen room, a library, a children's room, a workshop, an arts and crafts room and so on. As an intentional community, you are involved in how the community is designed and managed with other residents.

Cohousing is designed to encourage interaction between residents; yet residents can be as social or private as they desire at any time, and can choose which community activities they wish to partake in. The architecture of a cohousing scheme usually results in careful balance between private, semi-private, and semi-public spaces - it is designed to encourage interaction, but residents have the choice of being as social or private as they wish at any time.

The UK's housing stock has been predominantly designed for the nuclear family. This 'one-size fits all' house type does not accommodate the needs of a changing modern society and does little to facilitate a sense of community. Cohousing provides the benefits of stronger neighbourhood communities with a socially supportive environment, whilst allowing individuals to retain independent lifestyles, and remain involved in the management of the place in which they live. This provides an ideal environment for many ages - but is most popular for those with young children, and for older residents.

Generally there are two types of cohousing. Multigenerational cohousing is designed for all ages. Senior cohousing is aimed at older residents usually above fifty-five years of age, many of whom have had families but prefer to be in a adult-only environment.

Despite the popularity of cohousing in the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and more recently the US, there are only around ten completed multigenerational cohousing projects in the UK. There are no completed senior cohousing projects (the Netherlands is reported to have over two hundred and thirty senior cohousing schemes), although several groups have made progress in this area.

I'm interested to explore why cohousing has been slow to take off in the UK. What are the problems? What works well and what doesn't work so well? What is the experience of older residents living in such projects? Do the projects vary significantly in design and does the architecture of such schemes make a difference? Does our culture here in the UK differentiate our projects from those elsewhere and how suitable are some of these schemes for older residents? To explore this topic I will be visiting cohousing communities in the UK, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and the US. This is the first of a series of blogs in which I aim to share some of the highlights of this trip with you.