For some time, the focus of architecture and estates management has been predominantly on environmental sustainability. Addressing issues such as energy efficiency and sustainable building techniques has been a necessary and correct approach for tackling fuel poverty and indeed climate change. However, while society has been fixated on environmental sustainability we have perhaps been under-addressing a major and growing issue within societal sustainability.
Recently, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) warned that within the next 15 years, 24 countries will become ‘super-aged’, having more than 21% of the population aged 65 or over. This will put an increasing and, in all likelihood, unmanageable strain on society, particularly the health service (whatever shape it takes). As society ages, a great many people will need care, whether in dedicated facilities or in the form of domestic visits. However, the cost of delivering the necessary care will become unsustainable. It is a problem that needs to be addressed immediately.
The way we design homes, buildings and environments is clearly failing to recognise this fundamental societal change. If we designed with elderly living in mind, it would serve to give people more independence as they age. This would in turn help to alleviate some of the strain on society.
Better living conditions
A simple illustration is cooking a meal. In the typical kitchen environment, not designed for aged living, even the simplest tasks (such as reaching shelves, opening tins and handling pans) can be difficult for many elderly people, with the result that a carer must be dispatched. If kitchens were better designed – with shelves at a reachable height, easily operated dishwashers, simple, safe cooking facilities and so on – older people could look after themselves and the need for carers would be reduced. This would result in better living conditions for older people and lower costs for the taxpayer.
The key to designing for elderly living relies on accurate information about the elderly. What size are they? How far can they stretch? What weight can they lift? How mobile are they? How well can they see? These can be difficult questions to answer as there is a shortage of information about older people. However, ergonomists are now developing databases of anthropometry – the sizes and shapes of people – using new technology such as 3D scanners. A knowledge base is emerging that can and should inform all building design.
Another technique ergonomists use is ‘link analysis’. This involves observing a task and recording the physical movements around the workspace that it needs. For example, to make a cup of tea you might move from the work surface, to the cupboard, to the sink, to the fridge and back to the work surface. The kitchen designer can then position these items to minimise the distance travelled.
Of course, the design must be optimised for the many differing kitchen tasks, so the available anthropometric and link analysis data form the fundamentals of a holistic approach to design. Only then can we truly achieve effective, future-proofed designs that support independent aged living and ease the strain on society. However, such a fundamental change will take some time to implement. We need to act now. Time is not on our side.