Later Living Housing Design: Learning from COVID-19

This week on the Offsite Hub Blog, Stuart Carr, Director with architects Inglis & Carr, discusses the potential long-term changes to the way housing is designed and delivered as an outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a recent trip to Verona, prior to the majority of the population of the UK being placed under house arrest, I found myself looking up at the balcony which was said to have inspired Shakespeare’s ‘Wherefore art thou, Romeo’ scene. Young couples, and some older, were re-enacting the scene for the benefit of their families and friends and any thought of social distancing amongst the tourists in the courtyard below, myself included, could not have been further from our minds. In a sense the crush and inconvenience of it all was part of the fun of the experience. 

How ironic that just a few short months later the television pictures of Italy would show deserted streets with not a tourist and barely a local in sight. Before long the pictures from Italy were showing residents on their balconies, observing the social distancing rules but managing still to communicate. 

What bearing will all of this have on the design of new communities for older people? Communities that enable residents to rent or own a property and to maintain their privacy and independence, with the reassurance of 24-hour on-site staff, communal facilities, and optional care and support as needed.  This is a crucial question for our practice as we are currently designing Future Street’s new mid-market Later Living Villages for rent and part-ownership in various locations throughout England. 

We have a huge housing gap in the UK and the population is ageing. In August 2019, Property Week declared that Later Living is ‘set to be the next major UK residential asset class’ and Associated Retirement Community Operators (ARCO), the main body representing the sector in the UK, has ambition for 250,000 people to have the opportunity to live in Later Living communities by 2030. 

COVID-19 will drive changes of various kinds: legal, fiscal, procedural and physical. There is an inevitable tension between the need for densification and future social distancing. If we try to spread ourselves out more, what effect will this have on our valuable green belt and our dependency on the car to get anywhere in the absence of good, well-connected public transport in more rural areas? 

It is unlikely that COVID-19 will result in a reconsideration of the Housing our Ageing Population Panel for Innovation (HAPPI) principles which we adopt in our approach to good design for the elderly. The provision of external spaces, both private and communal, opening onto areas of planting, trees and the natural environment are essential.  In such responsibly managed living environments it is likely that health, fitness and wellness will improve, leading to increased longevity. 

A recent report commissioned by the Extra Care Charitable Trust shows that older people benefit from improved physical and mental health in Later Living Villages. The study demonstrated that such communities can delay or reverse the onset of frailty. Later Living Villages, unlike care homes, have experienced a fairly low rate of infection – largely because of less hands-on care and the compartmentalisation of the village into individual homes.  This pandemic will act as the catalyst that ignites the need for innovation to enable better care, communications, and management such as video platforms to keep residents connected and interactive robots. 

Lockdowns may become more frequent in the future if these are seen by successive governments as the best method of avoiding the worst effects of a pandemic but the fundamental advantages of social integration over social isolation will remain the primary driving force. 

At the first hint of a potential pandemic new management protocols will require that all residents go into lockdown until a comprehensive process of testing has been undertaken. Free movement of staff will be curtailed – at present staff sometimes move between operators which increases the risk of cross infection. In effect, the village operators will have built a virtual wall around their premises. But this will not preclude the strategic coordination of non-human resources and the sharing of information amongst operators
The pandemic will require Later Living to enter the digital age and will act as the catalyst that ignites the need for tech innovation to enable better care, communications, and management: from video platforms to keep residents connected to deployed robots to interact with residents. 

Other construction technologies which are better known, but not yet widespread, will come to the fore. Offsite manufacturing, particularly modular construction, will increasingly demonstrate its ability to comply with social distancing requirements. In this form of construction prefabricated structural boxes fully finished internally are manufactured in factories remote from the site and then craned into position onto a foundation or podium which is constructed on-site. This form of construction reduces the time spent on site overall very substantially. In this process quality control and health and safety issues can be effectively managed within a well-lit and well-regulated, heated factory environment. 

Bringing innovation to the construction industry is difficult but perhaps now even more imperative. The climatic and quality control advantages of manufacturing in controlled factory conditions are well-established. Health and safety issues can be better managed within a factory environment and when social distancing is required this can also be more easily implemented without having to shut down the factory. COVID-19 may turn out to be the impetus which modular manufacturing needs to get it over the tipping point, where it has been hovering uncertainly in recent years. 

In possible future outbreaks, the ability of residents to interact with others in a safe environment will be of paramount importance. The provision of balconies, either within a courtyard setting or facing the street, provides an opportunity most of the year round for safe social interaction.

The courtyard will often be a space that is used for various activities, whether recreational or educational or just for relaxation and talking to friends. During the lockdown in Verona the residents compensated for the lack of any street activity by creating their own. I would expect the same phenomenon to occur on an impromptu basis within the courtyards we are creating for Future Street. When it is too cold to sit out on a balcony there will be an option to sit in the rooftop winter garden in an attractive landscape setting. 

Our immune system is bolstered by healthy eating and micro-gardening, the intensive cultivation of a wide range of vegetables and herbs in small spaces such as balconies, courtyards, and surrounding landscaping, are highly productive. Extending this wellness philosophy further to the boundaries of the plot and we could see small allotments, summer fruit trees and bushes, wildlife gardens and natural wildflower areas.

We have an opportunity to respond in a positive and creative way and I look forward to seeing the innovative ideas which the current crisis will generate.

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