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How the changing population will affect architecture

Patrick Devlin

Population change is one of four key themes identified by RIBA Horizons as shaping the global future. Pollard Thomas Edwards’ lead for later living and co-design projects, Patrick Devlin, discusses its implications on architecture

New Ground Co-housing by Pollard Thomas Edwards Architects lifts housing quality.
New Ground Co-housing by Pollard Thomas Edwards Architects lifts housing quality. Credit: Luke O’Donovan

Architects involved in designing for the later stages of life are used to understanding changing demographics and seeing the opportunities inherent in this work. RIBA Horizons 2034 foresight programme identifies population change as one of four key themes shaping the global future. The four scans developed under this theme uncover multiple challenges regarding shifting demographics, some familiar, some less so.

Increasing demand for age-appropriate buildings is in itself an opportunity for architects, of course, and working with a responsive, aspirational group of residents and clients is an important factor for my enthusiastic collaborators at Pollard Thomas Edwards (PTE).

More broadly, UK society, from the NHS to political parties, would not function without the contribution of the over 60s. Design for this age group has been highly influential in housing design for all ages since the first HAPPI report, from the London Housing Design Guide to recent RIBA Award winners. In this context, I think we can discern positives and wider opportunities in the thought-provoking scans, which balance out the many challenges, if not actually outweighing them.

Changing and ageing populations

Around 3.5 per cent of the UK population – 2.6 million people – will be over 85 years old on current trends by 2039, points out Maria Evandrou, professor of gerontology at the University of Southampton, while the birth rate has declined 17 per cent since 2012. Evandrou picks up on the growth in single-person households but also references the co-living and cohousing responses that architects have a key role in developing. Both ‘intentional’ cohousing communities and commercial co-living developments prioritise sociability, for residents and with the neighbourhood, balanced with privacy and security. This feels like a trend in cities worldwide. As our need for space reduces with age, and the availability of land shrinks for an increasingly urbanised population, architects have the skills to improve the quality of the home while rebalancing individual and communal space.

Urbanisation is well established in the global north and seen by Commonwealth Associates of Architects (CAA) president Peter Oborn as economically positive, albeit with CO2 emissions challenges. But it is growing in the global south at a rate that has threatened to overwhelm authorities’ ability to provide basic services. It is in the south that 95 per cent of the projected 2.5 billion growth in city dwellers is expected. Oborn identifies collaboration and knowledge sharing as the key contributions that UK professionals can make, with the CAA a valuable vehicle for delivering these goals. Of the areas of weakness identified by the Global Future Cities Programme, architects are particularly suited to work on the ‘lack of integrated and inclusive planning’ and ‘weakness in governance and collaboration’.

Helping a community’s aspirations crystallise around the design of buildings and places is the key architectural skill likely to survive the AI revolution. A successful codesign process empowers residents to participate in shaping their surroundings, prioritising resources and building social capital. PTE has demonstrated this with the design of New Ground Cohousing, a women-only scheme in north London, completed in 2016 and alluded to by Evandrou, and in the recent public realm codesign it facilitated with residents in central Brixton, The lesson for architects is that the way to grow knowledge is to share, not hoard. The lack of qualified, experienced professionals in less industrialised countries makes this sharing the only show in town if the growth in CO2 emissions is to be reversed while, at the same time, people become healthier, wealthier and longer lived.

Diversity and innovation in design

In western Europe, 10-20 per cent of the population were born elsewhere – against around 3 per cent in many countries – according to statistical demographer Guy Abel, a professor at the University of Hong Kong. The accommodation of migration in western Europe and the accompanying increase in diversity is not subject to the same constraints in available expertise. The countries currently most affected by high immigration levels are those with the greatest economic and professional resources to address the diversity it produces. Abel points out that this diversity can promote innovation in design while the design of the built environment will also affect how different communities meet, whether in shared facilities designed for the purpose or in streets that may have accommodated many previous migrations.

New Ground Co-housing is a good example of collaborative design of housing.
New Ground Co-housing is a good example of collaborative design of housing. Credit: Tim Crocker

Migrant communities share with intentional communities, such as New Ground Cohousing or Tonic, a common culture and the potential to express that culture through the buildings and places they inhabit, either by new development or by adaptation. Intentional communities draw on the experience of their members to shape their surroundings.

In the collaborative design of cohousing, the location and character of the ’common house’ is one of the defining moments of the process. It may be at the front, as at New Ground, secure but publicly accessible by invitation and seen as a space to invite the neighbourhood in; or as a space shared primarily within the community, located deeper within the development and helping to build cohesion and identity. New Ground’s generous daylit internal shared and circulation spaces and gallery access, with kitchen windows onto shared space, have their origins in the women’s belief in interdependence and social interaction as the antidote to isolation. Already well known as the single greatest threat to the mental and physical health of older people before 2019, isolation was clearly shown by the Covid pandemic to have similar effects on all age groups, with the final health costs not yet clear.

Urban collaboration and knowledge sharing

Architecture has a critical role in combating isolation in the design of buildings and places, and architects and urban designers can advocate for sociable space in political and planning circles. Nissa Finney, professor of human geography and director of research at the University of St Andrews, points out that access to affordable housing is an important driver of age segregation, as it is in the location of ethnic minority communities. This trend of ‘neighbourhoods becoming increasingly ethnically diverse and age polarised’ is a challenge to the creation of ‘welcoming places’. We have some of the tools to meet this challenge in our long experience of how the UK’s building stock has adapted to successive migrations. But we also need both a much far diverse architectural profession bringing wider experience to bear, and a much greater sharing of design knowledge and usable tools with a wide range of communities.

Welcoming neighbourhoods

The horizon scans highlight the need for a balance of resilience and change. We cannot afford to waste the embodied energy of existing building stock, so we must learn how people are using the buildings they already have to understand how to adapt and improve them. In the UK this will mean levelling the VAT playing field between new-build and refurbishment. At the same time, cities in both the global north and south will need to change radically: in the north to remove or reverse their carbon emissions; in the south to provide the social economic and physical means for their inhabitants to thrive. Both kinds of city will need to be resilient, accommodating changing demographics so as to integrate both young and older into city life, supporting and learning from one another.

Developing design skills for changing demographics

This aspiration has an important physical component that can be shaped by architectural skills as well as economic forces channelled by planning. But equally important will be the role of the profession in sharing knowledge and design tools that a wide range of communities can use. Across the range of challenges explored here, architects have useful contributions to make. Design skills that both solve problems and articulate social and personal aspirations are more likely to be supported than displaced by AI, at least in the medium term. The profession will need to develop skills that are less embedded in the production of building representations – 2D and 3D building modelling – where machines are taking over the heavy lifting. We need to acknowledge that these were always a means of communication and not an end in themselves. For example, post-occupancy evaluation of existing homes as well as new ones will become increasingly important. This way we can learn from the embodied knowledge accumulated by residents of every kind of place. PTE’s Happy Homes Project with the University of Reading extends this evaluation to the social value embedded in the design of homes and neighbourhoods, making crucial tacit knowledge explicit.

As Horizons 2034 makes clear, the key message regarding the population challenge is that life in the UK will change, probably even more rapidly than in the last 30 years. The skills that will likely be the last to be superseded by digital automation are those that interpret the physical world to humans, and project human aspirations back onto that world. Architects are anticipators and orchestrators of change at all scales, and Peter Oborn’s call for leadership is well made.

Patrick Devlin is a partner at Pollard Thomas Edwards working on regeneration, co-design and later living projects​

For further foresight on the themes of population change, the environmental challenge and the economics of the built environment, see: RIBA Horizon 2034. RIBA Horizons 2034 is sponsored by Autodesk


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