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Homes For Life

Home is where the heart is. I can attest to this having spent an emotional weekend with my sister, rummaging through a lifetime of accrued possessions, following the recent death of our dad.

With our parents gone, the house is but a shell of its former self. But, even so, each cupboard and draw offered up tantalizing memories extracted from a rich residue of life lived to the full.

As various neighbours stopped by to see how we were getting on I was reminded that a house is just a house, but homes are part of communities, connected and made possible by people who care.

Next week I will oversee the 5th Agile Ageing Alliance AGM. Beyond business most of us have our own special reason for joining the Alliance. Reminiscing in my parents’ home, I was comforted knowing I am trying to make a difference by helping improve quality of life, independence and wellbeing for an ageing population in our neighbourhoods of the future.

What follows is a replication of an interview for Housing Association Magazine:

How did you get involved with health care and housing?

My first real exposure to health and social care was observing my dad caring for my mother while she did her best to hold incurable cancer at bay for six precious years.

Like most lay carers my father learned on the job. In real life he had been a chartered surveyor, so this was all very new and at times quite scary. When my mother passed she left a gaping hole in my dad’s, then 82 year old, life.

Dad was lucky, he had a strong support network of family, friends and neighbours who were there to help him come to terms with life in a big old, suddenly very empty, house.

But, it got me thinking about those less fortunate. When I was subsequently invited to join Innovate UK and help lay the groundwork for a revolution in long term care and dependency, I jumped at the opportunity.

You are about to chair the 5th AAA Congress, what do you hope to achieve?

This is still a significantly underdeveloped sector, with considerable scope for social, business and technological innovation that will drive business and enable older adults – even those with high level physical and/or cognitive requirements - to remain in their own home, rather than a setting run on institutional principles.

That said, in a world where social networks are leading to a pandemic of loneliness, we need to look at the ageing society challenge holistically and reimagine housing within the context of ‘smart’ neighbourhoods. Neighbourhoods are the settings where residents can socialise, realise common values, and achieve a level of social control and purpose.

How many more affordable homes are needed, particularly for older people?

Today, there are more than 11 million people aged 65 and over in the UK, by 2035, there will be 17 million. 

According to the Local Government Association we are looking at a shortfall of more than 400,000 units of housing for older people by 2030. 

Why is MMC a good choice compared to traditional methods?

Modern Methods of Construction (MMC), emerging ‘smart’ technologies and big data analytics present possibilities for everyone. However, their potential impact on the way people, especially older adults, engage with the built environment is relatively unexplored. 

The UK is facing an acute housing shortage. Better use of modern construction processes and materials could fix this, enabling thousands more homes to be built faster, cheaper and more efficiently; potentially transforming the quality and specificity of UK housing. 

Writing in the AAA Neighbourhoods of the Future 2019, report – commissioned by Tata Steel, Kieran Singleton Co-founder, of automotive design specialists Forge Design says there are lessons to be learned from the successes of the automotive industry: “Car manufacturers first recognised the benefits of platform manufacturing decades ago. To make better products more affordable, it is standard practice to try and maximise the amount of inter-vehicle commonality. This level of standardisation could have led to a conveyor belt of similar products and a huge reduction in user choice. But, by aspiring to great design, manufacturers have taken advantage of the platform approach to deliver exciting new concepts, embraced by the public at both ends of the price spectrum.” 

Matt Cooper, a leading advocate for MMC at Arup, is even more bullish “The creative pioneers of the new generation of MMC not only have the opportunity to alleviate our housing shortage, but to change the way housing is delivered across the social spectrum. With adaptable and agile regeneration capabilities built in by design, within the next 10-20 years, MMC may not only halt the downward spiral in our housing market, but act as the catalyst for a new social economy.” 

What is the benefit for people with mobility needs?

Making our homes more accessible to people with mobility needs is a pre-requisite for an ageing population. 

New build housing and indeed retrofit homes can be made more accessible – and safer - by replacing steps with slopes/ ramps, installing grabrails/ handrails, compact lifts, floor coverings etc. Lighting can be improved to illuminate risk areas. The bathroom is a top hazard area with regard to falls injury and could benefit from use of use of non-slip flooring, accessible baths, better lighting, taps and shower installation. Kitchen units, can be lowered for easy reach from wheelchairs. Digital assistive technology solutions has huge potential to improve lives. This will range from new forms of robotics and digital health systems, to installation of sensors, alarm systems, automated use of environmental controls, and/or innovative use of more mainstream systems such as Alexa etc. 

Critically, these improvements, need to be well designed. There is no need for ugly fixtures and fittings, better suited to a Victorian hospital than a home.  

How do you envisage constructing enough units to meet this growing need?

A wholesale commitment to MMC and the aims and aspirations outlined in our aforementioned report could make a substantive difference at scale. Local authorities around the country are keen to do things differently. By way of example, in Coventry an independent developer, Regents Regeneration, is planning to build a pioneering multigenerational neighbourhood. The Regents scheme includes building a factory outside of the City to construct the new homes off site. Regents also hopes to work with Coventry University to incorporate a teaching facility addressing a growing skills shortage in the construction market.

AAA is staging a two day Neighbourhoods of the Future Congress at NatWest HQ in London May 14th and 15th. You can find out more about the event via this link.

Image: Phyllis and Walter Bush - RIP - Inspirations for AAA and Neighbourhoods of the Future