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An older population means more adaptation

Brian Green

An ageing and shrinking population will require a radical reconfiguration of the built environment, rather than an expansion.

Proctor Mathews’ Steepleton retirement complex project in Tetbury, Gloucestershire.
Proctor Mathews’ Steepleton retirement complex project in Tetbury, Gloucestershire. Credit: Tim Crocker

Recent population projection estimates released by the Office for National Statistics are not just interesting reading for those fascinated by demographics. They point to profound changes with the potential to radically alter the task ahead for architects working in the UK.

When we look to the future and demand for the services of architect, we tend to consider firstly the economy and secondly which economic sectors are on the up or going down. That’s not surprising. As Aziz Mirza illustrated well in his RIBA Journal article (7 May 2020) in the early days of the pandemic, when the nation gets an economic cold, architectural practices get a bad bout of ‘flu.

That relationship may be relatively well known within the industry, but his chart tracking work since the 1960s shows just how severely architectural workloads has been hit by economic recessions. A halving of workloads in a few years is a bitter pill to swallow.

As if to sweeten the pill, the chart also provides some comfort. Architectural work over the long term has increased relative to both overall construction activity and the wider economy. This is true of built environment professions overall, and we should expect this trend to continue.

Standing back and asking what key fundamentals change the demand for architectural services, of the multiple influence on workloads, three spring to mind. These are: the change in the types of spaces people want or need to work, rest, and play; the financial resources available to individuals and firms that they are prepared to spend to meet these desires; and the growth rate in the number of people compared with the current growth rate.

The latter probably attracts far less detailed attention than it should. The popular view that the population is growing with rapidly increasing numbers of older people is not wrong. But what appears to be underappreciated is that we are on the verge of major demographic shifts that have profound implications for the built environment.

Chart 1 shows the rate of growth in the UK population over 10 years, taken from the latest Office for National Statistics estimates and forecasts. What we see clearly is that over the past two decades population growth was exceptionally high. The 10-year growth rate peaked at almost 8% in 2016. This contrasts with almost no population growth in the 10 years to 1983.

The sheer numbers of extra people accommodated over the past 20 years, about eight million, inevitably created huge demand for more homes, schools, hospitals, and an array of other buildings and structures. In the 20 years ahead of us the ONS principal population forecast suggests the population will rise by just over three million. This implies significantly less pressure on the built environment from population growth than experienced over recent times. This in turn suggests lower levels of construction.

Importantly, the principal forecast rests on relatively high levels of net inward migration, more than 200,000 a year. The ONS zero net migration forecast, where outward and inward migration balance, is also plotted on Chart 1. That scenario sees the UK population falling, shrinking by 2.6% to leave two million fewer people in the UK in 20 years’ time. That’s the combined population of Leeds and Bradford. Compare this with a rise of 13% over the past 20 years, which added eight million people to the population, which is more than the population of London in 2000.

That clearly suggests a very different future for architectural workloads. What’s more, given the migrants tend to bring youth, the population would be on average significantly older, with far more pensioners to support for each person in work.

Looking at the past three ONS population forecasts a theme emerges. As Chart 2 shows, projected growth has steadily fallen. There are three key assumptions here: birth rate, death rate, and net migration. You might reasonably suspect that the downward shift between 2016 and 2020 in the projections arises from assuming lower net migration (Brexit) and, perhaps, raising assumptions on death rates (Covid-19). Indeed, the assumed deaths have been increased. But the principal projection in 2020 assumes net migration is higher in 2020 than in 2016 and 2018. The big tilt in the assumptions comes from lower expected birth rates.

Across the world fertility rates, the number of children born to a mother, are falling. They are expected to fall further. Replacement level fertility is generally put at 2.1. The rate in the UK has not been above 2 since the 1970s and is currently below 1.8 and falling. The falling fertility rate is a global phenomenon.

This has profound implications not just for the number of people in the UK, but the composition of the population. If we have not already reached the point (and we will see when census data emerges), we will in this decade for the first time ever have more people 65 and over in the UK than children under 16. When today’s pensioners were children there were two under 16s for every person 65 and over. Chart 3 shows how this fundamental shift will become more profound as the decade plays out.

Looked at from the perspective of what this means for the built environment, this means radical change. It points to very different spaces and uses for a very different population than the one we have today – far fewer children and far more older people. In terms of what types of work will be in demand, the data points more to reconfiguring what we have rather than expanding the built environment. And this pressure to radically reconfigure the built environment will be supercharged as the UK seeks to adapt to climate change and adjust to the effects of an increasingly digital economy.

The future look nothing if not challenging and exciting for architects. There may be fewer people, suggesting lower investment in the built environment. But the push needed is to adapt what we have. That is likely to require a vastly greater, perhaps once in a lifetime, boost to investment.

In the end, how much investment and how much work there will be for architects will rest on the resources made available. Here, the economic circumstances look bleak. A financial crash, followed by almost a decade of austerity, followed by a pandemic and now a major war that will reset global relationships. The economy, the welfare system, and much of the built environment is in a tatty state. But not as tatty as things were in 1945.

Arguably the need for the skills of architects and their comrades in the construction sector has not been greater since the end of the Second World War. The question is whether this will be recognised in political circles.

See more on

A more in-depth look at housing for an older population. How architects have already been adapting for the needs of older people: Bell Phillips model homes for the elderly for the London Borough of Greenwich. How Flemish architect De Vylder Vinck Taillieu’s and  Dominique Coulon & Associés’ magnificent pink example in north east France.

Glancy Nicholls on design for dementia and MacEwen Award-winning Meadow View home in Derbyshire and tools for understanding dementia.





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