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Supported housing: a neglected sector

Rory Olcayto brings a group of architects together to discuss the complexities of designing supported housing

Last month, the AJ published a building study of Yew Tree Lodge, a sheltered-housing scheme by Duggan Morris Architects (DMA) for people with learning difficulties. The practice made significant changes to the scheme it inherited from BPTW Partnership, which steered it through planning. Where BPTW proposed a ‘traditional-looking’ scheme, DMA reworked elevations and tweaked interior details to produce a more contemporary vernacular and a more efficient plan.

The reaction was strong. BPTW partner Alan Wright asked that we publish his firm’s original plans to allow readers to form their own opinions of DMA’s revised design, while Angela Morrison of Bristol-based Quattro Design Architects questioned the ‘art gallery’ aesthetic of the revised scheme. But a cursory scan of the type of building produced for the supported-housing sector – an umbrella term that covers sheltered housing and extra-care housing – suggests innovation in design is undervalued.

The AJ asked DMA, BPTW and Quattro Design to attend a roundtable discussion to share their experiences of working within the sector. Hanover Group, one of the largest specialist providers of retirement housing in England, and Walter Menteth Architects, a practice with experience of designing sheltered housing, were also invited. Here we present an edited transcript of the two-hour discussion.

A muddled sector

Vivien Lyons Before we think about design, we need a distinction between the different client groups in the care sector. There are differences between sheltered housing, supported housing and extra care, but no clear definition for any of them and government initiatives are surprisingly contradictory. For example, there is a dilemma over how you handle someone with learning difficulties who is also over 55.

Rory Olcayto Why can’t a person over 55 with learning difficulties live in the same environment as anyone else over 55?

Walter Menteth We have a more complex society now. Instead of a more inclusive care structure, we’re moving towards a more segregated one, where we define people as a problem to fit into a category.

LyonsAs well as the poverty of our purses, there is clearly a poverty of imagination. Partly this is because there is such misunderstanding over who is being designed for.

Angela Morrison The sector tends towards extra-care, where tenants are grouped together with shared facilities and an on-site care team.

Design innovation

Olcayto Does the sector offer scope for innovation?

Andy Heath A Herman Hertzberger scheme, De Drie Hoven in Amsterdam (1974), shows that when you have scale you can provide great social facilities. Without scale and budget you are limited to essentials.

Joe Morris There are ways to overcome budget constraints. All projects have problems with funding, end-user engagement and planning.

Olcayto Are clients conservative? Why aren’t we seeing diverse architectural expression?

Mark Jefferson Aesthetics should not be the sole driver. The needs of the person living in the home should drive the design.

Heath The design and aesthetic mustn’t alienate the people who live there.

Menteth But most of what is designed does alienate people. ‘Brookside’ architecture doesn’t appeal to the society we now live in.

Heath I’m not promoting a bland aesthetic.

Menteth But would you agree that there’s a monolithic provision of substandard accommodation where the profession is not producing to the best of its ability?

Heath Yes.

Olcayto Angela, you had problems with the aesthetic of DMA’s Yew Tree Lodge.

Morrison Yes. The entrance hall is so stark. To come into that building and find there are no carpets, no lampshades, no pictures on the wall, low-energy lampshades hanging from the ceiling. It does not offer a home for life.

Menteth There are two philosophies here: providing a vessel to live in and the architecturally deterministic approach. DMA’s design provides a vessel to live in, where the life and soul of the building is determined by residents. So internally, it’s quite simplistic, robust and minimal, allowing for change over time.

The alternative is to provide a fully kitted-out environment. The danger is that it imposes cultural and aesthetic values. I think the approach taken by DMA at Yew Tree Lodge is the standard the sector should adopt.

Location and form

Olcayto Do we agree that supported housing should be located within established communities?

Menteth Because they are land-hungry and low-density, it’s difficult to place these buildings in the communities their residents come from. If we want to make location important we should get away from the historic form of the almshouse.

Morrison Why not place extra-care housing within local university or college campuses, alongside student accommodation?

Heath A high-rise format [could be a solution] because it creates a natural cluster around the core. Management and maintenance would be cost-effective. It would remove the spaces that don’t offer much value, like the double-bank corridors.

What clients want

Olcayto What are the fundamental design ideas underpinning a client’s thinking when commissioning supported housing?

Lyons The focus is providing bigger flats with at least two bedrooms, so residents can socialise with visitors. Also, a loosely defined space at the reception where you can have a café or internet facilities is popular.

Morrison All our clients are saying, ‘we want the wow factor, we want to make a big impact’. This is the public zone that prospective tenants see and that’s where you concentrate your resources. You don’t need all these little vest-pocket spaces around the plan, because you’ve got a big flat.

Menteth It can be difficult for new residents who have lived in lively neighbourhoods to integrate without intimate communal spaces.

Planning and process

Morris The planning system is not on board regarding a sector reassessment. It was incredibly reticent about our design for Yew Tree Lodge. It leads to a compromised building designed by committee, where the power of the architect is sidelined by the power of the design officer and local planning policy.

Menteth It’s process-driven, not product-driven. This rarely produces a good building.

Lyons It’s process-driven because you have to tick so many boxes about how the building is managed and maintained. That becomes a massive constraint for designers.

Design delivery

Olcayto Are care schemes among the best work your office produces, and designed by your best architects?

Morrison Well-funded projects with enlightened clients in other sectors are undoubtedly better, but extra-care housing will stand the test of time and our best designer does work on them. It’s true that the external appearance can be compromised by design and build contracts.

Morris We do a lot of design and build. All it takes is a bit of gumption to stop the builder going down the wrong route.

Menteth The form of contracting dumbs down both aspiration and design quality. Practices say: ‘I’m not going beyond stage D, I’m just doing a performance spec.’

Morrison The good thing about design and build is that you value-engineer with the builder. But if they go to the quantity surveyor and say, ‘it says timber windows but we’re using uPVC’, suddenly that detail, that finesse, is gone.

Menteth That’s a problem, because the accretion of finesse is good architecture. The rest is all building. The problem with the public procurement sector is none of that finesse is going through.

MorrisIt’s very difficult to do meaningful research and find case studies that really start to set up a long-term legacy, not just in terms of living spaces but in terms of its location and its impact on the community, the local context.

Menteth We need to see more quality. This type of architecture is about patronage and it requires a commitment and a vision from the client to lift it.

Readers' comments (2)

  • If the discussion took place as reported, it seems the plot was lost. Process does not contradict or hinder a product from doing what it is supposed to do. As a client, I look initially for one thing: Fitness for purpose; what follows is also important, but within "fitness for purpose" are the residents needs and expectations; and the operation of the home.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

  • Having spent time working with people requiring 'extra care' - a group of children between the ages of 2yrs to 18yrs with a range of disabilities - a common issue between the children, parents and staff is that the building itself is failing. Facilities designed to meet the minimum building regulation requirements is simply inadequate. Either the guidelines need to be altered or architects/designers need to be reminded that these guidelines are simply providing an absolute minimum in terms of design quality and ease of use.

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