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Age-friendly housing: how good design can improve later life

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Sarah Wigglesworth outlines new research from the University of Sheffield School of Architecture in which older people were invited to co-design housing projects

The rising average age of the population is one of the greatest social changes of our era. While definitions differ, older age is variously accepted as commencing at 55 or retirement (65-70). Yet many of us can now expect to live until 100 or more. Ageing is a long process that is not measured in numerical years but relates more to genetics, lifestyle, location and socio-economic group. Moreover, the ageing population is very diverse, with a range of interests, capabilities and lifestyle preferences. If we want the elderly to stay fit and healthy in their own homes – which most people say they want to do – this has implications for their housing that we are only just now assimilating.  


The University of Sheffield’s Designing for Wellbeing in Environments for Later Life (DWELL) research project looked at the contribution design can make to ensuring mobility and wellbeing are at the heart of older people’s housing and neighbourhoods. Involving a team from architecture, social science, planning and public health, the project viewed design as embedded in interprofessional networks and processes. 

It explored interventions at a range of scales, using ‘research by design’ to engage and co-design with stakeholders. Our work focused on the city of Sheffield and our partner, Sheffield City Council, gave us access to officer time and data from its policies and strategic vision.

Participatory design research can help address the shortcomings of a system in which people are treated either as passive consumers of a ‘product’ or as residents on whom housing is imposed by business models, such as Extracare or Assisted Living. Our research engaged groups of older people in co-design projects aiming to tease out their preferences and concerns relating to housing and the design of the public realm. 

The ‘spaces of wellbeing’ must provide a balance between an ageing person’s changing competencies and the environment in which they live their everyday life. We defined mobility as the desire for connection with the external world in its myriad conditions – past, present and future – whether this be virtual, sensory or through physical movement in space and time. This helps combat isolation and promotes mental health. 



Garden block. A raised deck with undercroft parking resolves the difficult interface between residential apartments and busy urban streets


Eight out of 10 older people say they would like to downsize, but only three out of 10 do so. There is a shortage of well-designed, high-quality, appropriate and attractive housing in the right place for this market. Many people who do downsize move only at a time of crisis, when they are not necessarily making good decisions. In addition, they may be buying off plan and be unaware of what to look out for. 



A comparison of different apartment layouts for the same 80m2 footprint. The more flexible layouts (A and B) incorporate functions such as a study space into the circulation

We ought to think about how and where we want to live in later years at an earlier time in our lives. Downsizing should not just be about shaping life on a smaller scale, it should be a re-evaluation of what we want to be as we move into a different phase of life. We should make greater demands on providers, or use our energy and skills to develop our own models of housing (co-housing, shared households, custom build) and take command of our own future. 

Our research showed that the models of housing that work for older people work for everyone else, and would allow people to remain in one place throughout their life course. Although often known as ‘downsizer’ homes, such housing is actually a form of general-needs housing (meeting standards like Lifetime Homes). It has the ability to adapt to changing needs; has two-to-three bedrooms with lots of storage (for a lifetime’s possessions); space for buggies, charging mobility scooters and favourite pieces of furniture; accessible bathrooms; and is supported by the ‘internet of things’. Thresholds are level and there is access to a private open space. Don’t we all want this?

Neighbourhoods for ageing well

Housing for older people needs to be close to shops, services and cultural facilities, and connect well to the public realm. Good public transport links are essential, as are public toilets and benches for resting, to encourage walking. Access to shared, open, green spaces is good for mental health. What works for this age group works for all of us, and if we were to apply this to our cities it would help create stable, multigenerational communities, where older people could play a visible and active role in communal life.  

Space standards

Dwell contributed to the debate about space standards by comparing current Building Regulations. We found that space standards meeting the needs of older people ideally sit between Approved Document M Category 2 (accessible and adaptable) and Category 3 (wheelchair user). We should resist the trend towards smaller and micro-flats. Greater innovation in housing delivery is required to address this issue.  

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The majority of new-build apartments offer substantially reduced living space compared to older houses, and many would-be downsizers are put off by the idea of reducing their living space by 40-50 per cent

The older people’s housing market

Housing strategy in the UK sees the problem from the consumer side. We need to address the supply side. Where affordability is critical it is the ‘squeezed middle’ (those with a small amount of equity in their home) who will find it increasingly hard to find appropriate housing. Without some form of subsidy – which could include state-subsidised housing, new financial models such as part-ownership, rental or older people’s mortgages – this group is unlikely to find ways of downsizing into age-friendly accommodation, were it available. 

Our research concluded that we know how to design for the ageing population, but the market models don’t work and the policy levers are ineffective. However, older people can use their buying power as discerning consumers to raise standards. A wider diversity of players is needed in the market, and more subsidised housing must be built for those who have no choices. Spending money on the built environment ‘upstream’ can save money on mental, physical and social problems ‘downstream’. This would result in happier, healthier, more diverse, stable and resilient communities – something that would benefit us all. 



A generalised ideal map of third‑agers’ mobility and travel as described by research group of older people participating in co-design projects as part of DWELL 

Sarah Wigglesworth is director at Sarah Wigglesworth Architects and was formally professor of architecture at the University of Sheffield. For more information about Sheffield School of Architecture’s Dwell project, go to: dwell.group.shef.ac.uk All drawings by Dr Adam Park.

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