Engineering for the future: Retirement living

The number of Britons aged 65 and over is expected to increase more than 40 per cent by 2040. A significant figure, it makes me question whether, with the knowledge and technology available to us today, we’re doing enough to design buildings for a comfortable future?

While there’s no lack of care being put into current design, I think we need to be giving more consideration to certain elements which will provide for today’s older population as well as tomorrow’s. There is no crystal ball available to tell us what influence technological, economic or social changes will have in a few decades’ time, so we must try our best to create buildings which accommodate this lack of foresight.

A structure for comfort

The desire for convenience and community is timeless. In the current climate we’ve increasingly become aware of the need for easy access to shops, helping hands and a reliable WiFi signal. These are not guaranteed nationwide.

Before the blueprints, location is a crucial consideration. Will the local area provide residents with the support necessary for their well being and comfort?

At first glance, finding such a place might seem an impossible task, given the density and popularity of many towns and cities. However, in greater London, the South East and the East alone, there are approximately 22,000 hectares of brownfield, representing a third of such sites. These are valuable resources and ones which should be considered wherever possible.

Along with preventing the destruction of the greenbelt and minimising embodied carbon, redeveloped sites offer numerous benefits to the ageing population. Particularly, recovering desirable locations and providing access to those all-important amenities. Often located near pre-existing municipal infrastructure and neighbourhoods, brownfield ensures integration with the wider community. It allows residents to stay close to a familiar locale and prevents the costly, logistical challenges of establishing supporting systems for new villages.

All this allows for greater independence, with access to other important services such as transit and delivery. Dwindling high streets may also benefit. Primary city centres are at risk of erosion due to evolving shopping and social habits; a much-needed boost could be the remedy. Beyond this, historical landmarks and heritage architecture may potentially be preserved.

Fit for future

Where the buildings themselves are concerned, the first step is getting the basics right: form, materials, comfort and ease of access, to start. Fundamentally, a structure exists primarily to support the building fabric, regardless of the project. By taking everything into account from loading and drainage to acoustic insulation and thermal mass, making sure the essentials are in place, you can create a robust canvas on which the finer details can be added.

Taking a more focused look at your audience, make sure you account for criteria specific to pensioners. For example, most sites will need to be wheelchair friendly so that all residents can move around freely with minimal constraints. Further, lighting, positioning of windows and intuitive placement of fixtures and fittings can help create a more comfortable and accessible environment.

Older generations often seek to downsize by moving to a retirement community. Extending beyond their homes, this includes concentrating their lives around a reassuring, relaxing and recognisable hub, tailored to their needs. The planning stages need to anticipate the challenges and needs associated with growing old, rather than requiring designers to react to them as they arise.

Then, discussions need to happen with clients around how much flexibility they want included in relation to repurposing spaces and adapting for future residents’ needs. In a perfect world, it would be a priority and assumed. However, cost is an undeniable challenge.

With the life of a building being approximately 60 years and technology rapidly changing, at the very least, the design should be able to accommodate ongoing developments in assistive technology so outdated kit doesn’t become an inhibitor to well-being.

If nothing else, recent global events have emphasised the importance of community, connectivity and flexibility. More than ever, the vulnerability of our older population is apparent. With foresight and careful planning, we can help engineer a future for our pensioners which supports them in both the best and the worst of times.

Chris Smaller, Technical Director, Perega