Research indicates that in parts of the UK, 80% of over-55s say they feel isolated with many citing a lack of community spirit. When it is considered that the quality of the built environment can have a significant influence on our behaviours and experiences, providing well-designed housing communities and public spaces can assist in addressing the issue of loneliness in later life.
With 85% of occupants in retirement developments stating that senior living accommodation provides a good sense of community, it is evident why a significant number of older people are drawn to assisted, sheltered and retirement housing. As a result, it is important in the building and renovation of the housing that a design and ethos suitable to supporting and creating sociable communities is present.
Outdoor spaces and wellbeingNowadays, housing facilities are placing increasing emphasis on open spaces partly in recognition of the intrinsic link between nature and humans that suggests we need contact with the natural environment to sustain our health and wellbeing. In fact, the benefits of the outdoors for seniors is well supported with research indicating that time with nature boosts overall health and can strengthen immune function. However, despite outdoor activity being shown to be beneficial for our physical and mental wellbeing, evidence suggests older people are less likely to take part.
One example of a housing scheme recognising the importance of outdoor spaces is the £1.3m redevelopment of Shallcross Court in Everton. The original scheme for Shallcross Court in 1991 saw the southern areas of the site introduce a communal block that divided the garden space into sheltered walkways and awkward courtyards. Understanding the advantage to occupants in making the housing better connected to shared, open areas and the local community – having also been backed by feedback from residents – the scheme’s outdoor area was reimagined as part of the redevelopment.
Shared areas were created to encourage residents to spend time together and with the aim of supporting a better engaged and spirited community. The design of the outdoor areas went beyond the physical creation of space and also considered the external look of the sheltered housing itself whereby a biophilic influence is incorporated to deliver a complementary aesthetic.
Less ‘old people’s home’, more hotelAnother main focus for today’s senior living design is on making the facilities feel less institutional both in character and atmosphere, and to create a backdrop that is closer to a hotel than an ‘old people’s home’. Both interior decor and a building’s exterior structure helps establish a strong sense of place for inhabitants and guests. Neither occupant nor visitors are going to be enamoured at the thought of entering a facility that looks and feels like the stereotypical old people’s home from yesteryear, let alone live in one. Addressing this sentiment, the early stages of Shallcross Court’s redesign saw an experimentation with a variety of finishes and colours with the intention of creating a strong identity for the scheme using bold signature colours. After all, in addition to building community, design helps to establish a brand identity.
The bank of existing trees and planting of the site informed an eye-catching mix of vertical green strips, while the monolithic, two-tone grey using larger format panels offsets the busy facade below to delineate private space on the first floor from communal space on the ground. The carefully proportioned pattern of Vibrant Green, Hunter Green and Pale Olive were balanced with flecks of Spectrum Yellow to help realise the punchy lower section of cladding; and equally to match and reinforce the sense of nature from the surrounding garden environment.
With cladding fitted on a new timber frame extension and over the existing main entrance, the development creates a new focal point for the scheme and clearly advertises it from its prominent new position. Building exteriors create first impressions. The introduction of a clean, bold new material palette for the communal block helped contrast the coarse and bland materiality of the existing buildings and enhanced the presence of the scheme in its context, offering a bright, welcoming atmosphere for residents and visitors.
The importance of investmentAn economic and social concern, elderly isolation has cost implications for the NHS, social care and the wider economy. Investment and planning initiatives need to be responsive to the issue of elderly isolation and ensure the adoption of design solutions that promote a sense of social interaction and community at its core. Getting a handle on this issue now is imperative when we consider that by 2026, the number of those older than 75 is expected to have risen from 4.2 million to 6.3 million in the UK.
There is also a further factor worth considering in terms of the quality of existing housing stock and the aging population that, for the foreseeable future, will be occupying these buildings. In addition to being unsuitable for the physical, sensory and cognitive needs of people as they age, many of our current buildings are inefficient in terms of energy consumption. In a time of increasing energy costs, the specification of the right building envelope can significantly influence thermal performance and reduce running costs.
Many of today’s architectural practices, including John McCall Architects, the practice behind the Shallcross Court redesign, are embracing a fabric-first approach to sustainability in order to achieve comfortable, low-energy buildings with longevity. In the instance of Shallcross Court and in particular the specification of VIVIX by Formica Group panels, a ‘low embodied carbon’ cladding option – in comparison with alternative aluminium, cementitious or wood-based cladding options – made it particularly well-suited for the project.
With today’s architects and designers increasingly taking the physical and mental comfort of residents into consideration when planning modern senior living facilities, Shallcross Court is an example of housing developed with distinct character and a sense of place to have a positive impact on health and wellbeing.