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Take care (seriously)

Quality of life, not just ease of maintenance, should inform designs for supported housing, says Rory Olcayto

When a senior manager of one of the UK’s largest providers of supported housing looks upon a Peter Zumthor-designed care home in Switzerland with real enthusiasm and then claims there is ‘a poverty of imagination’ in the home-grown sector, you know a breakthrough of sorts has occurred.

This was just one of several key moments in our roundtable debate on supported housing, a sector set to grow but still neglected by architects – and by clients, who seem sadly resistant to design innovation.

An exchange between two of the roundtable architects was also significant. Angela Morrison of Quattro Design Architects appeared resigned to the fact that procurement in the sector results in schemes lacking finesse. But Walter Menteth of Walter Menteth Architects said good architecture resulted from ‘accretion of finesse’. Without it, he added, the result is mere construction.

Vivien Lyons, principal commissioning projects manager at Hanover Housing, was charmed by the Pritzker Prize-winner’s 1993 building in Chur, Switzerland – a tufa-clad concrete frame with huge, easy-to-open windows set within thick larch frames. As you might imagine, it majors in finesse. Other materials include pine and maple, reflecting both the local building tradition and the textures and colours familiar to residents.

A roll-out spec is not only cheaper than bespoke - it’s easier to maintain

Zumthor, speaking to AJ contributing editor Patrick Lynch last month, said: ‘Lots of people like it. The institution that owns this building hates it. This is crazy. It is good for the users, for the old people. But the owner thinks there are too many visitors, that the solid wood floors are difficult to clean.’

Zumthor’s point regarding the owner’s and residents’ contrasting impressions highlights another issue central to the sector’s fate and one raised in our roundtable debate: should it remain process-driven or should we focus procurement on the end-product?

A process-driven approach irons out finesse: a roll-out specification, triple checked by numerous stakeholders, is not only cheaper than bespoke design, it’s easier to maintain. But if this is to be the sector’s focus, the debate is already over. Imagine making a decision about your parents’ later years based on cleaning products, rather than the quality of the space they will live in. It beggars belief.

rory.olcayto@emap.com

Readers' comments (1)

  • Extra care housing is a relatively new building typology that has a big impact on the urban landscape. It is also very important for the people living in it. Because they are old they tend to spend much more of their time in their homes than the general population, so the home becomes the setting for their lives. It should be discussed more widely in the architectural press: this debate is very welcome. The schemes are very varied in size and provision, and potentially could produce great designs – though often they do not, the procurement route being what it is. In Europe, for example in Austria and southern Germany residential buildings for older people are often the subject of architectural competitions , and these have resulted in some excellent buildings by architects such as Herrmann Bosch, Mitterberger and Andexer and Moosbrugger. The University of Sheffield is partnership with PSSRU (University of Kent) is currently researching the design of extra care housing in relation to the quality of life of people living there in the EVOLVE project. We will be producing a building evaluation tool and design guide based on this work. Our findings to date are that people living in extra care housing like living there, particularly because of the opportunities for social engagement and the feeling of security, but they experience a lot of problems. The problems people have with mobility and accessibility are not taken sufficiently into account; there are often not enough lifts, and difficulties carrying out routine activities like laundry and refuse disposal. Space constraints cause difficulties. There is an engrained perception that old people need less space than anyone else. Julienne Hanson has said that historically architects seem to have regarded design for older people as a challenge in miniaturisation, when in fact the need is for more space to allow for restricted ability to reach and bend, walking aids and scooters, and space for care assistants. There is a persistent legacy that space should be constrained – despite the fact that numerous sheltered housing schemes of the late 20th century have had to be demolished because they are ‘hard to let’: very few people want to live in a bedsitting room. We are building larger living units now, and the apartment footprint has been steadily increasing, though there is still a debate about one or two bedrooms. Two bedroom schemes give much more flexibility, but one bed units are still being built. The housing benefit rules are driving this rather than need. The parsimonious attitude to space means that people still struggle with insufficient storage, undersized kitchens and narrow living rooms. Despite the complaints the demand for extra care housing is there, and people who live in it say they like it. There are many more people in the population who reach advanced old age, and it is a good solution to remaining independent for some of them. The impact of the economic downturn is hard to predict, but there seems to be some evidence that the sector is relatively recession proof. It deserves more attention from architects.
    Judith Torrington, University of Sheffield, School of Architecture

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