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Will Covid-19 speed a move to intergenerational living?

Josephine Smit

The social benefits of intergenerational projects are known, and the few live schemes point a clear way for the future. They fit the current mood

Dementia centre courtyard view of 3DReid’s Craigmillar care and residential development.
Dementia centre courtyard view of 3DReid’s Craigmillar care and residential development. Credit: 3DReid

There are times when the conventional publishing process struggles to keep pace with real life events. This is one such time. When I began researching this article at the beginning of March there had been no coronavirus deaths and the question of providing housing for the elderly that was designed to enable people to lead less isolated and better supported lives was, it seemed, being answered with little urgency. 

In the light of social distancing, self-isolation and loss, and our experiences of fragile food supplies, support and health systems since then, the words of Chris Dobson, director of 3DReid, resonate. ‘It might be that we are looking at a future where we have to be more supportive,’ he said in March. ‘It’s what we should be doing as a society.’ 

For today, our priorities are to safeguard people and livelihoods. But when we emerge from this crisis, there will be a need for serious debate about ways of living. Intergenerational living, whereby older people can live independently but within a balanced and supportive community, might be one of the building blocks for a better future, not only for the 1.5 million high-risk people in England who were the first to be advised to self-isolate or even the 3.8 million people over the age of 65 who generally live alone in the UK, but for us all. 

Back in town
Retirement housing traditionally set residents apart from their broader communities on edge of town or suburban sites, but now they are being brought back into the urban mix. ‘These schemes should be specific to their communities,’ says Dobson. That’s true of a project the practice is working on with developer Keyworkers Living for a site in Craigmillar, Edinburgh.

Dobson explains how: ‘The area has been subject to quite a lot of redevelopment over the past five years. As a consequence, while there has been a huge amount of new housing, there has not been a student presence and later living has not really been addressed.’ The site’s suitability for its mix of student accommodation, assisted living and dementia care was sealed by the fact it has several higher education facilities training health professionals located or on the way nearby.

This is the practice’s first intergenerational project and it has drawn on research from numerous sources in developing its design, including the Dementia Services Development Centre’s work at the University of Stirling and Architecture & Design Scotland’s A Caring Place initiative, which is looking specifically at aging and town centres. It also engaged with Heriot-Watt University, whose Place-Age study on developing age-friendly urban environments engaged with the Craigmillar community.

The proposed design has two connected blocks fronting the high street, one containing 164 student bedrooms and the other 64 assisted living rooms. ‘The blocks have a front door onto the street, acknowledging that older residents lead their own lives, although they may need a bit of help,’ says Dobson. The assisted living block links to the dementia care facility to the rear via a central activity space, which both resident groups can use. There are 88 dementia care rooms, a third being specifically for end-of-life palliative care. Many of the latter will overlook Arthur’s Seat. ‘We thought that could be something quite powerful,’ says Dobson. ‘The view gives them a point of reference, a symbol of home.’

Internally, the dementia care facility has a mix of types of spaces, so that residents can sit where they feel most comfortable. Institutional nurses’ stations are ruled out; instead there will be more homely-looking bases in the lounge. ‘We tried to make sure it is a reflection of home, especially for the dementia side, so there are points of reference that should be familiar to people,’ says Dobson. The architecture references the predominant housing typologies of Edinburgh, primarily through a contemporary take on the bay-windowed tenement block, with the lower scale elements of the scheme echoing the 1930s semi-detached houses found in the area and local art deco era buildings. ‘We’re picking up on motifs, so it feels of its place and is as contextual as we can make it,’ he adds.

  • Pozzoni’s concept design exploring different housing uses and potential for a notional site – including aspects of intergenerational living.
    Pozzoni’s concept design exploring different housing uses and potential for a notional site – including aspects of intergenerational living. Credit: Pozzoni Architecture Ltd
  • Pozzoni’s £15.7million canalside living proposal for older people in Chester, under construction for assisted living operator Belong.
    Pozzoni’s £15.7million canalside living proposal for older people in Chester, under construction for assisted living operator Belong. Credit: Pozzoni Architecture Ltd

Fostering community
The shift to urban centres is overdue, says Nigel Saunders, director of Pozzoni Architecture, a practice well versed in design for later living. ‘Cities have become quite demographically imbalanced, and there is a need to rebalance and provide more solutions for older people,’ he says. That is generating a different type of architectural response and product, like the practice’s design for a site between a canal and a busy street in central Chester. The six-storey scheme, which is under construction for operator Belong, has a 72 bed care home at lower levels with 23 apartments for the over 55s above. At ground level, a community hub with a bistro, gym, hair salon and therapy room will offer services to residents and the broader community. 

Such community hubs are increasingly popular, a factor that prompted Pozzoni to take the idea further. It established a working group 18 months ago with CEOs from client groups spanning education, health, social care and property consultancy to explore urban mixed use with a later living focus. They are working through the diverse practicalities of different uses, from safety and safeguarding priorities through to ensuring each use has its own identity. 

The architect is now developing a brief and concept design based on a notional site to illustrate how ideas might work in practice for a building or series of blocks. The notional site faces four different environments: public space, retail street, residential and canalside areas. ‘We’ve given ourselves these four different conditions so that we can explore how the different uses might respond and get the right uses for the right location,’ explains Saunders.

This exercise is firmly rooted in reality, with the concept expected to illustrate both commercial and social benefits. ‘The anchor to this is how the hub offers opportunities for interaction,’ says Saunders. ‘We see the concept as a catalyst for changing the way cities provide for the aging population.’ A care home in an urban setting can serve both its own building and provide a base for domiciliary care for the wider community, he points out. And a school provides for interaction of young and old, and encourages families to remain in cities. As Saunders says, ‘In this way, the scheme becomes an asset for the wider location of the city’.

Ideas like these are already capturing the interest of clients. ‘It is enabling us to take ourselves out of the conventional project brief. Clients are asking: how much of this could we do here?’ says Saunders. ‘Our next step is to find a real site to work on.’ The work’s influence is extending beyond a single site. Pozzoni is a member of the housing and planning working group for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s Ageing Hub, Greater Manchester being the UK’s first age-friendly city region, according to the World Health Organization. The hub is looking at strategic responses and, Saunders hints, ‘The city region could lead the way in doing something highly ambitious.


PRP’s Pydar St intergenerational living proposal in Truro, Cornwall, for the city council’s development arm Treveth.
PRP’s Pydar St intergenerational living proposal in Truro, Cornwall, for the city council’s development arm Treveth. Credit: PRP

Scaling up
Ideas for intergenerational living are already being taken to a larger scale in Truro, Cornwall, where a site on the city centre’s fringe is set to be developed with up to 500 homes and other uses. For Manisha Patel, senior partner at PRP, the masterplan for the new Pydar district is all about people: ‘Our view is that intergenerational living is about going back to the village model in how communities interacted, with support mechanisms in place, physically, socially and across generations. It looks back to medieval communities and has to be people focused first of all.’ The scheme is being brought forward by Cornwall Council, and will be delivered by its own Treveth development arm.

Truro’s historic city has obvious attractions for retirees, and the new district will provide them with mixed tenure and extra care housing options. But at the same time it challenges some of the conventions around later living in Cornwall, where urban apartments and going out in the evenings to town centres are less common. This scheme encourages both older and younger people to enjoy both, bringing not only business benefits for the city but helping to address the social isolation that is so prevalent in rural communities. 

Alongside later living, the project will have an innovation hub for Falmouth University’s gaming and animation students, with its café and other facilities put to shared use. The masterplan also includes a hotel, offices and workshops, these uses bringing visitors and workers to the neighbourhood, and providing workspaces and jobs for university students who now have to leave the area after graduation. 

The masterplan’s design code demands that facilities are street facing and interact with the public realm. ‘The public realm becomes a very important space for interaction,’ explains Patel. ‘We’re opening up the River Allen for outdoor use so different age groups can meet.’ There are plans for activity and nature trails, an outdoor leisure street and an external escalator alongside the innovation hub. The slope from Truro’s high street to the river, which drops by around three storeys, is an accessibility challenge that has been addressed. Some routes through the site will have steps, reflecting Truro’s character, but alternative routes are being provided on this wheelchair accessible scheme. 

The masterplan is taking on board research into Truro’s facilities, needs and community views. ‘The outline masterplan code will be able to flex to the changing nature of shopping, and other aspects of life. We are designing for adaptable buildings,’ says Patel. ‘This is Treveth’s first development and it is ambitious to set high targets in the quality of the buildings and the public realm, so the development will integrate and stand the test of time.’ As well as masterplanning, PRP will design the scheme’s first phase and integrate other smaller, local practices into the process in the future.

For PRP, Pydar scales up thinking on typologies delivered on previous masterplans, including the multi-generational house for Chobham Manor, at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, east London. That design, for a family house alongside a smaller home, gives the potential for families to swap homes as parents or children age. It was sold by mass housebuilder Taylor Wimpey and, according to Patel, ‘went like hot cakes’. 

But such innovations have remained far from the norm. ‘On large scale masterplanning, this is being left to the market,’ says Patel. ‘We assume that typologies are taken up by families, but that’s not true, as people are living in different ways. Our policy is not falling into line with societal change. Larger developments could have intergenerational masterplanning.’ Current events could – and ultimately should – change that.


For more on age friendly design see RIBA report Home for the Ages


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