Redefining housing for the third age

Retirement housing has been lacking in both quality and quantity in the UK, with negative knock-on effects for the wider residential market. How can good design and planning make the case for the country’s retirees, who are wealthier, healthier and more numerous than ever before, to make the jump to the retirement housing market and free up vital residential space for younger generations?


Housing for the so-called ‘third age’ – those retirees who have crested the peak of middle age but remain active – has traditionally been viewed as something of a dead-end in terms of design innovation. From residential complexes to downsized flats and assisted living schemes, housing options for retirees were for a long time considered a decision guided by pragmatism rather than something to be embraced with any enthusiasm.

As population demographics continue to shift in developed countries such as the UK, with over-65s both more populous and in better health than ever before, the wealthy post-war baby boomer generation is, understandably, increasingly reluctant to make that sacrifice as they approach their golden years.

“In the past there has been a tendency for retirement homes to be seen as both a downsizing and a downgrading of people’s homes and lifestyle,” wrote Dexter Moren Associates architect Paul Wells in a 2014 blog. “This has meant many retirees are disinclined to move on. The old adage of working up the housing ladder to the detached home and then selling up for a small retirement flat is no longer the accepted norm and as designers we need to take up the mantle to design aspirational places retirees want to move to and live in.”

With the UK struggling with a housing capacity crisis as it continues to fall short of the approximately 200,000 residential units a year needed to meet growing demand, much of the emphasis has been placed on providing affordable homes for young people and families, but how does the housing landscape for the third age fit into this crisis, and how are architects and designers adapting their work to cater for the changing aspirations and expectations of this growing age group?

Shifting demographics forcing a new approach to retirement housing

The UK, in common with many developed economies, is home to a rapidly ageing population. The median age in the country hit 40 for the first time last year, an increase of six years since 1974, and the demographic trend shows no signs of slowing down. Over the next five years, the UK’s population of over-65s will grow four times faster than the general population.

This statistical shift is joined by changing lifestyles and health factors for British retirees. Having had decades to build up equity in their homes, Britain’s retirement population is flusher than ever before; over-60s in England have accumulated around £1.2tn in unmortgaged housing wealth, according to an estimate by property consultancy Knight Frank.

The legacy of improving healthcare provision also means that retirees – even those aged 80 and over – are at their healthiest and most active. According to last year’s Greater London Authority Housing Standards Review, the number of over 85s living in the capital is set to double by 2031, but only 10-15% of those people are likely to require specialist housing.

"Over-60s in England have accumulated around £1.2tn in unmortgaged housing wealth."

So the UK’s third age is healthier, wealthier and more numerous than ever. The challenge of persuading retired people to consider new retirement living options – thereby freeing up essential family housing in the market for younger generations – has risen in lockstep with these trends.

“Increasing the provision of housing suitable for older people will have direct benefits across the whole housing market, for all generations,” said Knight Frank’s head of institutional consultancy Emma Cleugh in November.

The situation certainly isn’t helped by a general shortage of new retirement housing being built in the UK. The 5,500 new retirement residential units expected to be built in 2016 represent just 3% of new housing capacity added for the year, despite over-65s representing around 18% of the country’s population. This mismatch between supply and demand discourages retirees who can afford it to leave their family homes, and leaves poorer elderly couples and individuals reliant on privately rented properties that are often ill-equipped to satisfy their needs.

The pursuit of HAPPIness

So what’s the solution to the retirement housing conundrum that is sending ripples through the UK’s squeezed property market? A key part of the solution is to raise both the quantity and quality of retirement homes and communities available to an ageing demographic that is less willing to accept compromises in living standards. This, clearly, is easier said than done.

With this in mind, the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Housing and Care for Older People has, over the past few years, published a series of reports on the topic, under the banner of Housing our Ageing Population: Panel for Innovation (HAPPI). The inquiry released its first report in 2009, having launched a Europe-wide tour of retirement housing and concluding that UK lags behind other European countries in providing well-designed living spaces suited to the aspirations of older people.

This was followed in 2012 with HAPPI’s second report, ‘Housing our Ageing Population: Plan for Implementation’, which set out proposals for policymakers and developers for a fuller retirement home-building programme, and the society-wide benefits of doing so.

Earlier this year, HAPPI’s third report, ‘Housing our Ageing Population: Positive Ideas’, was published. The report reiterated the need for UK retirees to accept “that it is good to move before you are forced to for health or financial reasons” and establishes new suggestions for removing obstacles that might be stopping retirees from entering the retirement housing market.

“[The report] finds that some considerations, such as emotional attachments to the family home and a close community, cannot be easily addressed,” reads a June statement accompanying the report. “However, there are other areas of concern such as hidden costs, the expense and hassle of moving, complex leases and a fear of losing control over decisions affecting the home: these can be tackled or mitigated.”       

Appealing design for the older generation

Of course, the design quality of these spaces plays a key role in this effort to sell the benefits of moving into retirement homes to older property owners. Over the course of the HAPPI reports, a laundry list of design and construction characteristics has been developed to help improve quality of life for retired residents and rehabilitate the image of retirement housing communities.

These criteria include abundant outside space, both communal and private, and walking routes to minimise the occurrence of dingy corridors and encourage social interaction and community-building. Rooms should be flooded with natural light and offer space that exceeds minimum standards, while energy efficiency should be high throughout to tackle the issue of fuel poverty among elderly residents. Sites that offer easy access to local retail and transport amenities should be prioritised, as well as housing tenures and management schemes that allow older residents to retain control over their living situations.

With a few exceptions, these are standards that could be applied broadly across the housing market, but even so, the added costs involved, coupled with an investment-sapping economic downturn and perhaps an excessive focus on housing for younger people, has “resulted in limited uptake of HAPPI’s recommendations”, according to the Local Government Information Unit.

"Rooms should be flooded with natural light and offer space that exceeds minimum standards."

Nevertheless, HAPPI has acknowledged success stories such as Sunderland County Council, which has drawn on the reports’ guidelines to inform its housing policies for older people, emphasising keeping older couples together in their own homes for longer, warm, energy-efficient housing and a choice of tenure scenarios for differing financial circumstances.

Different paradigms for retirement housing have also emerged and been recognised by HAPPI, including co-housing and co-operative schemes. One such scheme, dubbed Older Women’s Co-Housing (OWCH), in London’s High Barnet, was completed at the end of November. The women-only co-housing community was conceived more than 18 years ago by its prospective residents and designed by Pollard Thomas Edwards, with construction taking place on a site formerly occupied by a convent school.

The complex incorporates 26 flats and communal facilities; the apartments encompass a shared garden that is sheltered from the street, with the whole design encouraging community-building both internally and externally. In July the scheme won the HAPPI Project Award at the Housing Design Awards, and it could point the way, both in terms of design and the planning process, to more projects that create a community that is owned and maintained by the residents themselves.  

Improving the retirement housing landscape is a complex topic with complex answers, and other trends have emerged that cannot be covered here in full, including the growth of cross-generational living among retirees and their children and grandchildren, and the broad design considerations involved to accommodate this living situation, which have been grouped together into the concept of universal design, built to cater to residents across all generations.

But whether it’s making better use of existing homes for cross-generational living or expanding purpose-built retirement communities, it’s clear that improving the quality and capacity of housing for the third age is essential not only for the retirees who are directly involved, but also for the housing market and society as a whole, no matter which generation.