Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We use cookies to personalise your experience; learn more in our Privacy and Cookie Policy. You can opt out of some cookies by adjusting your browser settings; see the cookie policy for details. By using this site, you agree to our use of cookies.

The New Old: architects across continents are rethinking housing for the elderly

Paul Finch

China and the UK have in common a recognition of the housing needs of older people and the implications for architecture, says Paul Finch

Having been ensconced in Chengdu for a week to attend a conference on the greening of that impressive city, I managed to avoid most of the UK election harrumphing that has been conducted along the usual lines, much of it sounding like re-runs of the 1950s (for those with long recall) or the 1970s, a decade which has faded in the memory for mostly good reasons.

As I have noted here before, any economic policy promoted by John McDonnell will in effect be the same as the one he supported when he was in charge of money at the old Greater London Council, that is to say, spend like a madman, head for the rocks and welcome the ‘revolution’ that results from the inevitable crash. He may wear a tie these days, and sound like a suburban bank manager on Radio 4, but it doesn’t fool anyone with a memory.

Labour has no monopoly when it comes to glossing over history in favour of ideology, however. The Conservatives’ cynical elevation of a Green Paper on planning into a White Paper on the self-same subject has all the hallmarks of marketeers taking over policy-makers. As ever with the political class, the problems of housing shortage are being laid firmly at the door of ‘planning’ and a ‘broken system’ – propositions straight from Party Central (sorry, Policy Exchange), whose mendacious explanations on this subject still carry weight within Tory high command.

The counterweight to this is Labour’s belief that it is evil private property owners, exploiting salt-of-the-earth tenants, that is the root of all housing evil.

It is difficult to take any of this seriously, and I was relieved to find an area of housing policy common to both the UK and China during my visit to Chengdu, a modest city of some 16 million registered souls, but with an estimated actual population of about 20 million.

What we have in common is recognition of the housing needs of older people and the implications for architecture and architects. For example, more than 30 per cent of Shanghai’s 26 million population now comprises people over the age of 60.

More than 30 per cent of Shanghai’s 26 million population now comprises people over the age of 60

I talked about this with a young architect, Darren Chen, who spent his early life in Chengdu before moving to Singapore, where he now works on projects in China and further afield with Singapore-based architecture practice WOHA. Singapore is intensely interested in the subject of ageing populations because the success of its housing and health policies since independence has created a new problem – tenants living longer and now requiring more health care.

Last year, WOHA won the World Architecture Festival Building of the Year award for its Kampung Admiralty project in Singapore, which proposes new architectural approaches to housing for the elderly, wellbeing, medical treatment, landscape design and community engagement – ideas which Chen is picking up for work in Chinese cities.

Woha Singapore scheme wins World Building of the Year 2018

Woha Singapore scheme wins World Building of the Year 2018

Source: Patrick Bingham-Hall, Darren Soh, Lim Weixiang

Woha Singapore scheme wins World Building of the Year 2018

A phrase came to me to describe what architects are now having to think about as a significant part of housing design: the ‘New Old’. The way we design for our older citizens ranges from mono-use retirement villages to multi-generational house and housing types in many parts of the world which value ongoing family engagement, rather than separation.

Treat buildings like people

It is a short step, in thinking about varying degrees of medical supervision or treatment for people, to thinking about a similar approach to the buildings in which they live and work.

The annual medical check-up easily finds its counterpoint in the regular surveying of buildings (in the case of churches in the UK the quinquennial inspection). The same sorts of surveys, diagnoses and prognoses are relevant: when to intervene before a condition becomes chronic, the rationale for repair/refurbishment/retrofit and so on.

Darren Chen noted that in Singapore, there is a coincidence of both people and buildings hitting the age of 60, because major public housing programmes began there in 1960, preceding independence from the UK.

I like to think a slogan I suggested, to describe the AJ’s admirable Retrofit Awards when they were initiated, is as valid now as it was then – and it applies to programmes for human wellbeing as much is it does to the health of buildings.

The slogan is ‘Prolongs Active Life’. I must confess that I borrowed this from a 1960s advertising campaign for a brand of dog food.

It still works for me.


Readers' comments (3)

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.