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When we’re 65

Matthew Barac

As the need to design for the third age grows more urgent, where do you go to tap others’ experience?

PRP's Pilgrim Gardens from the winter garden onto the balcony.
PRP's Pilgrim Gardens from the winter garden onto the balcony.

Although not alone in having to face up to the challenges of an ageing population, the UK is comparatively unprepared. Five years ago, when the findings of the expert panel HAPPI (Housing our Ageing Population: Panel for Innovation) were published, the message was clear: our sheltered housing is tired, our command over the dialogue bet­ween policy silos limited, and housing innovation across the sector is out of step with our continental cousins. HAPPI’s call to arms was taken up by many and today there is more discussion, awareness, and invention going on. 

Playing its part in this debate, the RIBA chose as its overarching research topic for 2014 the relationship between the built environment and growing older, a theme rolled out in initiatives including the Building Futures publication ‘Silver Linings: The Active Third Age and the City’, the Research & Innovation Group’s call for evidence on ageing research (which produced some 450 items now catalogued into an online knowledge base), and the research symposium entitled Design for Ageing. While architects are, of course, involved in transforming public institutions and the urban terrain, the question of housing has understandably been at the centre of discussion. This recognises that if our homes were better suited to the changes ageing brings, we could avoid much of the pain and, argue the policy wonks, much of the cost, of health and care needs in later life.

Design for Ageing – held at Portland Place last November – was preceded by a seminar organised by the Housing-LIN (Learning & Improvement Network), an interdisciplinary hub that co-ordinates and commissions new knowledge at this nexus of debate. Speakers included the RIBA’s Anne Dye, David Birkbeck of Design for Homes, housing and care charity Central & Cecil (presenting collaboratively with colleagues and stakeholders), and Sarah Wigglesworth who shared her University of Sheffield practice research project DWELL: Designing for Wellbeing in Environments for Later Life. 

The morning session was a springboard for an engaging afternoon. Convened by Niall McLaughlin, the symposium adopted the format of a sequence of crits: six architects presented built works designed for or relevant to older people. Each architect was paired with a specialist critic equipped to view the project through the prism of research. If architects in practice, who are surely the drivers of disciplinary innovation, are to engage meaningfully in cultivating and harvesting new knowledge, it is vital that we start – as Kester Rattenbury recently wrote – with ‘what we do and how we do it’. 

A 1970s scheme threatened with demolition launched proceedings, presented by its architect Kate Mackintosh. Sheltered housing project Leigham Court, designed for Lambeth in the 1970s, divides its accommodation across six blocks all connected by a covered walkway. For sociologist Chris Phillipson of the University of Manchester, the scheme mediates between the city and domestic life, avoiding the institutional character found in so much sheltered housing. Clare Cameron of PRP Architects then presented Pilgrim Gardens in Leicester, a recent extra-care housing scheme, which was reviewed by Judith Torrington of Sheffield University. PRP’s work in the sector is widely acknowledged to set the benchmark; many HAPPI principles underpin a design approach which has led to architecture that feels inclusive and supportive. 

A more personal take on the subject was introduced by architect Dean Hawkes. He spoke not about retirement or downsizer housing but about the home he designed in the 1990s for himself and his wife: ‘We wanted to spend the rest of our lives in the house – to grow old there’, he said. Commending the project as an object lesson in foresight, Jeremy Porteus of the Housing-LIN paid tribute to Hawkes who had ‘prepared for later life by way of design rather than using the home as a cash machine’. Back to public projects, Liza Fior offered an erudite ‘show and tell’ of the Barking Town Centre public realm scheme.  Although not designed for ageing as such, the architect’s working rationale aims to address ‘those excluded from assumed development processes’. Developed by muf architecture/art, in several phases, it includes a public square, arboretum, and public art commission. Fior’s contribution was discussed by Edinburgh University’s Catherine Ward Thompson who highlighted the way the scheme offers people places to stop and talk. 

Pilgrim Gardens extra care housing in Leicester.
Pilgrim Gardens extra care housing in Leicester.


Architect Richard Murphy, a ‘crusader against the corridor’, and Richard Pollock of the Dementia Services Development Centre at the University of Stirling, discussed how designing for dementia demands sensitivity to the way those suffering from cognitive impairment rely increasingly on architecture’s capacity to deliver a coherent environment. A key to Murphy’s design approach is ‘inhabited circulation’ which, together with an orientation towards the views, encourages residents to identify with the locale.  

The final scheme, North London Hospice, was presented by Susie le Good of AHMM. Sited on a corner overlooking a sports field, the design – while distinctively modern – acknowledges its suburban context in both footprint and form. The section’s spatial thresholds are generous in client areas while affording staff some autonomy. This aspect of the project was praised by Open University gerontologist Sheila Peace. By balancing the sense of ownership over its spaces, the hospice inspires confidence about sharing them. 

Key points raised in the afternoon spilled into an evening session featuring keynote speaker Steven Witherford of Witherford Watson Mann and a panel debate with age supremo Baroness Sally Greengross; Rama Gheerawo, deputy director of Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, RCA; Anne Marie Connolly of Public Health England; and Sergison Bates’ Mark Tuff, chaired by McLaughlin. Why, asked McLaughlin and many from the floor, would we define design for ageing as a specialism when architects should be able to navigate the sector just as they do any other: schools, airports, or housing? Another nuanced theme was that of style. Must all sheltered, hospice, or extra care environments be kitted out in fixtures and furniture that use the visual vocabulary of institutions? While it seemed important to acknowledge that those who are older are not different as such, it was also clear that many implications of ageing are often overlooked by designers. 

Equally clear was the call, reiterated by Baroness Greengross, for architects to engage in the wider debate about ageing and social change. Critical policy questions concerning articulation between health, social care, and housing are being addressed at various levels, framing a context in which the profession might influence decision-making. 

Matthew Barac is an architect and senior lecturer at London South Bank University 



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