Why sustainable housing can accommodate people into old age

While sustainable house design is part of climate crisis strategies, it also means making homes adaptable for people to live in as they get older.

Adaptive design means that a house can be altered to cater to its occupants’ changing needs, making it future proof and sustainable.

Our ageing population means that people are living longer with long-term illnesses; adaptable housing would enable them to comfortably stay in their homes for longer.

We look at the advantages of adaptable, sustainable housing, what inclusive design means, and include comments on how this should happen from industry experts.

An energy-efficient Passive Haus with multiple photovoltaic panels.

The advantages of adaptable, sustainable housing

Sustainable homes are energy efficient and if flexibility is part of the construction process it will reduce the need for costly alterations later on.

Sustainable construction materials benefit inhabitants’ well-being: low-quality homes are expensive to heat, can have poor air quality, and are prone to dampness which can cause health issues. Eco-friendly, sustainable property development could include ground or air source heat pumps and solar panels, all producing renewable sources of energy and reducing carbon emissions, alongside triple-glazed windows and photovoltaic panels to produce solar water heating.

Living in sustainable housing would allow people who are getting older to:

  • Feel secure and content in the local community they know.
  • Have a sense of community and be able to socialise easily yet have privacy.
  • Retain independence by having proximity to shops, social activities, and healthcare. 
  • Benefit from natural light as well as energy efficient lighting.

Inclusive design in the housing sector

This means thinking about how well a home will work for occupiers of any age or physical ability, looking ahead to the future. It covers matters such as access into and around the house, and the flexibility of inside spaces to cater to problems caused by illness or immobility.

Inclusive design expert at stairlift and home lift company Stannah, Vaila Morrison RIBA said that buildings are responsible for 35% of global energy consumption according to research from the Passive Haus Trust, and while designing with the environment and energy performance in mind, it’s only part of the solution – inclusive design is also important in making a house really sustainable. She added:

To me, it just seems irrational, wasteful, and unsustainable not to design homes to allow for these transitions to be made as easily as possible, and indeed to make our homes accessible and welcoming to friends and family who have different access needs at different times.

Without the features that make for easy adaption, there is a real risk of people having to make do, which can impact health outcomes and lead to isolation. Not only can this have a devastating impact on individuals, but the knock-on effect can be costly to society too, resulting in elongated hospital stays due to lack of access, or having to move into a care home prematurely.

Adaptable homes can accommodate different requirements such as wheelchair accessibility.

Housing for an ageing population

Professor Timothy Dixon of the University of Reading and Visiting Fellow/Research Associate at the Global Centre on Healthcare and Urbanisation, University of Oxford, said that by 2050 a quarter of UK citizens will be aged 65, which has huge implications for our social care and housing systems.

He commented:

Although a lot of research and policy guidance has established principles or priorities for independent living and healthy ageing, such as helping people stay in their homes, developing new housing which meets older people’s needs, and linking housing, health, and social care in better ways, in practice things are not measuring up well.

There needs to be a much better joining up of policy across government departments to tackle this issue, and also to focus on how inclusive and intergenerational housing in sustainable communities can be developed. This means thinking about retrofitting existing housing stock as well as creating new developments which meet the needs of all ages so that older people don’t feel isolated.

Recent UK research by DICE has also shown how important it is to tackle loneliness in older age groups, and we can also learn from successful international projects such as Sällbo, a radical project in intergenerational living in Helsingborg, a small port city in southern Sweden, which aims to tackle loneliness and enhance social cohesion by giving residents incentives, and the spaces, for productive social interaction.

Sustainable design can incorporate multi-generational living accommodation.

Ultimately, we need to develop communities that are socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable and enhance social value for all residents so that people feel they have a voice, and that they have a real say in how their community and neighbourhood develops (in other words a co-created or co-produced vision, perhaps even using citizen panels or assemblies). Many of the smart health technologies for older people are here already, but having a vision is not enough, and much of this involves making political choices.

Wholescale change across the sector requires sustainable finance, especially in existing housing, and there is a real opportunity here to develop a much more strategic ‘future-proofed’ approach in the UK, which could include the rollout of green and smart technology for those people and households which need this the most, and to provide the opportunity for adaptable and intergenerational living.

More energy-efficient and sustainable housing is required.

Competing concerns with new build homes

While accepting the need for adaptable homes, the head of housing and planning policy with the National Federation of Builders, Rico Wojtulewicz highlighted the difficulties involved. While the Government wants to make buildings more adaptable, he said that delivering higher standards on every home is complex because of the many expectations of planning, site density of layout changes, and the true costs of development. He added:

Unfortunately, a serious discussion about what a developer already contributes is rarely in focus and instead, the debate is always on what more they need to do. The Government also believes land prices drop as regulatory cost increases, but nobody has told landowners that.

By the time a landowner secures outline planning, sells to a developer who has to pay for overheads and absorb material and labour cost inflation while achieving full planning, lifetime homes standards compete with the cost of drainage, affordable housing, grid reinforcement, onsite and offsite biodiversity, updated energy efficiency measures, service connections, and contributions to schools, hospitals, transport, communities, and highway works, to name a few.

Catering for an ageing population and those with different needs

That does not mean we shouldn’t be trying to implement lifetime housing principles but it might need to be a balance of things we can implement in every home but a percentage of a site delivering a higher standard. Plug heights, slopes on home approaches, wheelchair-accessible entrances, adaptation possible walls, and entrance-level living rooms can be delivered more easily. However, when it comes to all rooms and entrances being designed as wheelchair accessible, the layout being lift capable and designed for disabled parking, this can prove more complicated, particularly when there are local design codes or density limitations.

Disability of all sorts is important to cater to but homes for older people are also important. Some HBA builders build homes with older people in mind, for example, dormer bungalows, which are popular because grandchildren have an upstairs space of their own. However, as well as planners not always welcoming these designs, the general shortage of homes means it isn’t just older or less mobile people purchasing them.

There are a lot of past adaptation policies we should consider but they will require greater land use and planning reform to achieve. As one example, developments that cater to semi-supported care, so people can live independently for as long as possible, aren’t even assessed in the plan-making process, let alone encouraged.

Final thoughts on sustainable housing development

While getting more sustainable homes built will be challenging, the advantages they offer to society and the environment should spur the UK government, planners, and the construction industry to work together to find solutions.

Sustainable buildings are warmer, healthier, more energy efficient and will help reduce our carbon footprint and achieve our net zero aims. If inclusive design is part of this approach, we could have homes that people can live in independently for longer, enjoying a social life and family interactions more easily, preventing so many people from going into care homes prematurely. The far-reaching gains from this strategy have the potential to benefit society in many ways.

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