Sarah Wigglesworth MA Dip Arch RIBA RDI MBE is director of the London-based architectural practice she founded in 1994. Her work is acknowledged as a pioneering influence in British architecture, and is characterised by a rich spatiality and sensual material expression. Specialising in ecological solutions, Sarah Wigglesworth Architects has designed buildings for the educational, community, masterplanning, cultural, and housing sectors, and won many awards. As Professor of Architecture at the University of Sheffield, she led the DWELL research project, designing housing and neighbourhoods for older people.

Older people are going to make up a larger proportion of London’s population. We need a city, and housing, that works for them.

The rise in the ageing population has been called the greatest social change of our era. In many ways this is a success story, but it is frequently represented as a crisis for the current generation and a disaster for those that follow. With London’s ageing population set to rise, there is an urgent need to think about how to design the city, and housing in particular, to accommodate the needs of an entirely new generation of people who are living longer.

The conventional narratives concerning older people – as hospital bed-blockers needy for care, hogging their homes while the younger generation struggle to get a foothold on the ladder – all signal the demonisation of the ageing, fear of our own future, and failure to prepare. In fact, the ageing population is very diverse, and older people themselves can and must begin to overturn these misconceptions. Older people can be a crucial part of the solution but, too often, nobody seeks their opinion.

As an architect, I am interested in the contribution the environment (particularly the built one) makes to our lives. For three years I led the DWELL1DWELL is Designing for Wellbeing in Environments for Later Life. It was funded under the call Design for Wellbeing: Ageing and Mobility in the Built Environment by EPSRC, ESRC and AHRC. For further information visit www.dwell.group.shef.ac.uk project at the University of Sheffield, seeking to discover what the design of housing and neighbourhoods could contribute to improving the wellbeing of older people.

This involved a team drawn from architecture, social science, planning and public health. Sheffield City Council, our partner, gave us access to officer time and data on their policies and strategic vision. While Sheffield’s housing economy is significantly different from that of London, there are pockets of wealth in which developers compete for valuable sites, as in the capital, so our work has broader lessons.

The DWELL research project establishes how significant the environment can be in supporting the physical and mental wellbeing of older people. This means the barriers to the delivery of good housing and thriving neighbourhoods are all the more unfortunate. If your picture of an older person is a frail, bedridden dementia sufferer, think again: this represents a small proportion of older people, frequently at the end of life. Before that potentially lies a 30-year period (55–85 and beyond) in which most of us are likely to be living a full, independent and active life – as long as our environment makes it possible.

Wellbeing is complex. It involves having enough to get by on and to enjoy life; being connected to other people; pursuing meaningful interests, hobbies or work; staying fit and healthy; and managing one’s affairs and one’s home. Mobility is essential, not just because it matters to be able to get around physically (though it does) but because being mobile also enables people to have an investment in the future, in the outside world, in nature’s cycles, in current affairs and in the natural and built environment.

We know that loneliness is twice as likely to kill you as obesity, so it is vital to stay connected. Simple measures to help people stay in touch with one another – like level thresholds, access to an outdoor space or a view, provision for casual social interaction with neighbours, and appropriate spaces for carers or service providers – are all achievable with thoughtful design. In the public realm, attention to such factors as accessible public transport, navigable pavements, well-lit streets, access to green space, well-maintained public toilets, and places to rest on local thoroughfares all give older people the confidence necessary to make independent journeys. Enabling people to remain active, interested in the world and independent is key in helping them stay healthy.

For DWELL, we worked collaboratively with groups of older people, discovering their preferences in order to design their ideal housing types. This was instructive for all of us: we discovered that older people are rarely engaged in the design of the homes targeted at them. Indeed, the standard process of defining older people’s housing is to create a beguiling brand (a lifestyle) and/or adopt a previously successful business model. Both strategies overlook the possibility of a rigorous understanding of real people’s lives and preferences.

Seven in ten older people say that they would be interested in downsizing from a large, increasingly unmanageable home if the right alternative were available, but only three in ten do so. This tells us a good deal about the lack of available choice. Many older people leave it too late to decide to move, hesitant about the change and unsure that it will be for the better. Sadly, a move to downsize is often made in a crisis, urged on by family members unable to cope. A moment of crisis is not a time to make good and rational decisions, and many older people fall victim to unscrupulous property deals, ending up in unsuitable, uninspiring or downright miserable accommodation, which may well be the first step to institutionalisation.

There are too few providers of truly well-designed, inspiring homes in the right place and at all price levels designed to support older people’s independence and quality of life. The volume housebuilders show little interest in moving into the older people’s market, continuing instead to concentrate on their well-known brands, conscious that shortages mean almost anything will sell, all the while benefiting from government Help to Buy subsidies that privilege first-time buyers. Almost every piece of recent legislation relating to housing has addressed the demand side while failing to tackle the supply side.

Local authorities, meanwhile, struggle to achieve their strategic housing goals, including good housing for older people, in the face of austerity and planning policy that is weighted in favour of commercial developers – although some (including Harrow, Croydon and Camden) are working imaginatively to make the best use of their dwindling supplies of land. Commissioning feasibility studies on their land, creating new financial vehicles and raising funds to carry out their own developments, either alone or with like-minded partners, they are helping bring forward a supply of new housing models.

It is fairly easy to identify the factors underlying the apparent under-supply of good housing for older people. Yet the provision of beautiful and appropriate downsizer housing would mean that those with capital tied up in their homes could liberate larger family houses and bring them onto the market. Our research showed that where they can afford it, older people prefer two- or even three-bedroom homes, giving them space to do all sorts of things, from having a relative or carer to stay to starting a business or pursuing a hobby. Designed generously, to accommodate the changes that are inevitable as life progresses, such homes could be considered general-needs housing, meaning anyone could live a good life there, and could thus provide continuity within communities into old age. Larger dwellings go against all the trends in space standards, but we need to bear in mind the desirability of people remaining in place, not least because of the consequently reduced social and healthcare costs if something adverse happens.

This approach would enable older people in the future to live among the rest of us and to use their skills to play a visible and active part in volunteering, working, shopping and caring. In common with other demographic groups, our participants were interested in alternatives to the nuclear household: single-person, intergenerational, co-housing or communal. The Housing and Planning Act (2016) requires local authorities to keep a register of local groups (such as co-housing groups and Community Land Trusts) interested in self-build and custom build, and also to ensure they have enough plots of land available to meet local demand. But with land scarce and expensive, and in the absence of subsidies or preferential treatment, it is unlikely in practice that many of them will be able to acquire sites.

Where affordability is critical, as in London, it is the “squeezed middle” – people who have a small amount of equity in their home – who in the near future will find it increasingly hard to find affordable and appropriate housing for old age. Without some form of subsidy (which might include state-subsidised housing, new financial models such as part-ownership, or older people’s mortgages), it is unlikely that this group could downsize into age-friendly accommodation, even if more were available. Our research concluded that we know how to design older people’s housing but the market models don’t work and the policy levers are ineffective.

Older people need to demand better provision: to be discerning consumers and use their purchasing power, at the right stage of life, to raise standards. We need to encourage a greater diversity of players into the market while providing more subsidised housing for those who have no choice. Spending money on the built environment upstream could save money on mental, physical and social problems downstream. Older people are the experts on a future that (with luck) awaits most of us. Involving them in discussions about housing and making sure that the city is designed to accommodate their needs will result in more diverse, resilient, happier and healthier communities for the future – something I think we can agree is good for everyone.

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1. DWELL is Designing for Wellbeing in Environments for Later Life. It was funded under the call Design for Wellbeing: Ageing and Mobility in the Built Environment by EPSRC, ESRC and AHRC. For further information visit www.dwell.group.shef.ac.uk