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FLEX: the quality required from housing for older people

At a time when young people are struggling to get a foot on the housing ladder and there is a fierce debate going on about intergenerational fairness and finding a place to live, it is hard to make the case for prioritising the needs of older people when it comes to housing.

But make the case we must. Quality and appropriateness of housing has become the defining factor in determining how well Britain will manage its ageing population in the future, as I discovered when I joined the panel of academics chaired by Oxford’s Sarah Harper to advise the Government Office for Science on its Foresight report ‘Future of an Ageing Population’ (2016).

I learnt that the physical and financial aspects of housing don’t just affect residents’ wellbeing, social interactions and access to services, but also reverberate right the way through the health system and financial markets. The big but unsurprising news from the Foresight report – unsurprising, that is, to those who follow ageing or housing or both closely –is that housing stock in the UK is not well adapted to older people. There is a mismatch between their needs and the homes they inhabit.

Mainstream homes are often the wrong size for later life, are difficult to manage and maintain, and don’t support the many physical changes that accompany old age. Even the most basic considerations such as level access, wide doors and entrance-level toilets are missing in 95 per cent of English houses. Poor lighting on landings and stairs invite accidents; lack of insulation, damp penetration and weak heating contribute to ill health.

Lack of specialist housing

That’s before you examine a shortage in provision of specialist, smaller homes for older people – this results in many being unable to downsize at any point before a crisis in support that catapults them into institutional care. As a result, many family homes are under-occupied at a time of significant housing shortage in Britain. Young families are suffering from a lack of focus on housing for older people.   

Outside the home, things don’t improve. Despite research showing that a supportive neighbourhood is intrinsic to domestic wellbeing, there is frequently a lack of step-free access, ramps, handrails, seats at regular intervals, working toilets, properly maintained surfaces and removal of seasonal hazards of autumn leaves and winter snow. The result is that many older people are left virtually prisoners in their own homes. Down the line, the NHS bears the brunt of this externally imposed isolation.

There are exceptions to these rules: many housing associations, private providers and local authorities are now building exemplar schemes that cater for needs in later life and sharing good practice. All this is to be encouraged, but the numbers aren’t huge. What we need is to scale up via a transformational systems-led approach to our broken housing market. For this to happen, I believe that we should look beyond housing to borrow ideas from other parts of the built environment.

Take the office environment, for example, where architects, designers and manufacturers of everything from IT to furniture in the workplace have started to form a broad coalition to help improve employee wellbeing and productivity. In the same way, we need a similar revolution in thinking in our homes and neighbourhoods for older people. There may be less of an overt commercial driver for change, but the basic economics of a fresh approach make equal sense.  

More adaptive and agreeable

I’ve been looking at a design model I’ve developed for the office environment to see if it could be applied to lifetime homes. This is a model that looks at making spaces and settings more adaptive and agreeable for their users – it is called the FLEX (Flexible-Legible-Experiential-Comfortable) model.  

Flexibility means building in interior elements that adapt more easily to changing and unpredictable requirements over time. Legibility refers to local environments that are more easily understood and intuitively ‘read’ and navigated by their users, incorporating visual cues to make that happen. Experiential spaces are designed to project warmth, atmosphere and a protective mood – they offer a good experience. Finally, spaces that are really comfortable make people feel welcome, relaxed and supported.

It’s not difficult to see how these values could transfer readily to housing for our ageing society. We need a whole system approach to planning, procurement, co-design and build to deliver a new generation of homes that flex as we age, are easy to understand and manage for residents, offer a great living experience with opportunities for social interaction with others, and provide real comfort, peace of mind and dignity in terms of giving support and protection in later life.

Fix our homes and neighbourhoods for people at the top end of the age spectrum and the benefits might cascade down the generations, freeing up more under-occupied family homes, for example.  Who knows, it might even do something for intergenerational fairness.

About the Author

Jeremy Myerson is Helen Hamlyn Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art, Director of WORKTECH Academy and an Honorary Fellow at Oxford Institute of Population Ageing.                                                       

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Comments Welcome: We welcome your comments on this or any of the Institute's blog posts. Please feel free to email comments to be posted on your behalf to or use the Disqus facility linked below.