Friday, September 05, 2008

Housing: the age-old problem

The following article was taken from, the site for construction industry news.

Growing old isn't something that many of us like to think about. Except perhaps for the odd 10 minutes when we're looking in the mirror in disbelief that we're actually turning into our parents. Sadly, however, the fact remains that for those of us fortunate enough to make it, old age is a reality.

As a population, we're aging at an incredible rate. The average age in the UK now stands at approximately 39 years, compared to 34.1 years in 1971. Furthermore, by 2026, older people will account for almost half of the increase in the total number of households - resulting in an additional 2.4m older households than there are today. It's essential, therefore, that Housing Associations ensure that the dwellings they provide are able to accommodate a changing society - and for too long they haven't.

Elderly and disabled individuals living in social housing often find it difficult to move around their homes, make a cup of tea or bath themselves properly, and as a result, injuries or accidents often occur. A quick look at government statistics further illustrates the problem, with older peoples' falls resulting in 1.25m hospital admissions per year, at a cost to the NHS of around £750m. Safety modifications and adaptations are thought to be able to massively reduce that figure, with some analysts claiming that they could be reduced by as much as 60%. Or to put it another way, cut costs by about £400m.

Sixteen-point plan

In February this year, communities minister Hazel Blears announced that from 2011, all social housing must be designed and built to meet the '16 point' Lifetime Homes standard (see box, opposite). By putting its own house in order first, the government is hoping that the private sector will follow suit. If it fails to do so, by 2013 regulations will be introduced to make the standards compulsory throughout the UK.

The Lifetime Home Standards were first developed and promoted by Habinteg Housing Association and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation during the late 1980s. They were based on the idea that new dwellings should be designed in such a way that they are suitable for people throughout their lives and particularly as they enter old age. The Standard covers things such as wider doorways for wheelchair access, and entrance level living rooms. It also requires all housing to be accessible and easily adaptable to help people cope with disabilities.

While some may argue that this is simply another hurdle introduced by the government, making it yet harder to build the much needed social housing in the UK, Paul Cann, director of policy and external relations at Help the Aged, welcomes the idea: "This strategy is enormously important. Housing is the backbone of older people's quality of life, affecting their health, well-being and independence."

"Older people often tell us that they want to live in their own homes for as long as possible, but due to poor designs, they're unable to do so. This strategy will hopefully ensure that in the future, elderly people have the option to choose."

Lifetime neighbourhoods

The new standards form part of a wider initiative launched by the government called Lifetime Neighbourhoods. These are designed to ensure that in the future cities are constructed in such a way that they are able to accommodate the requirements of an aging population. Working in conjunction with planners and design experts, the scheme will address common design faults believed to be responsible for the growing number of elderly people that feel trapped in their own homes. These include the lack of disabled parking bays, public toilets, well located bus stops, as well as better street lighting and kerb design.

There are plans to role out the first 'age-friendly' cities across the 10 nationally planned eco-towns and the Olympic Village. If the project proves to be successful, it is certain to set a precedent for other cities across the developed world.

To support both the Lifetime Homes and Lifetime Neighbourhoods programmes, a £33m fund has been allocated for essential repair and adaptation work to begin on social housing dwellings. This coupled with a £460m 'Disabled Facilities Grant' for changes such as installing stair lifts and walk in showers will, according to the government, "help people stay mobile and live independently for longer".

Cann continues: "We're delighted the government is addressing the challenges facing the day-to-day lives of the older population. The commitment to providing housing advice, repairs and adaptations today, will mean that for the first time, older people who want to continue to live independently are better equipped to do so."

Constructing for life

In principle, this all sounds ideal. After all, it shouldn't be too much to ask that after decades of working hard and paying taxes, our elderly population should wish to keep their dignity and independence and continue to live comfortably in their own homes. The question is, however, is a one-size-fits-all approach to social housing really the solution? Or is this simply a knee-jerk reaction to an ageing population and the spiralling maintenance costs facing the government?

"In theory, the Lifetime Homes Standard is a good thing," says Marcus Keys, affordable housing director at Mansell. "There's simply no point in building homes that you then have to modify later down the line. This is about building homes of the future, today.

"Where housing providers need to be careful, though, is in ensuring that we don't end up in a situation whereby you have a single elderly person occupying a four-bedroom house, because her children moved on a long time ago. In that situation, you have to ask yourself, is this really the best use of space?"

Jon Rukin, Framework Manager at Rok, agrees. "The Lifetime Home philosophy is ethically and socially sound, but perhaps financially flawed," he says. "If you invest extra money building homes to this standard and only actually end up modifying a quarter of them, it doesn't demonstrate a good return on investment."

So the population is aging, the market is changing and as a result, we need to change the way we go about building our homes. In the private sector, the standards have come under particular scrutiny. Some contractors have argued that the standards are not a necessity and that the extra costs make it harder for first-time buyers to get on the market. So what does all this mean for the social housing contractor?

"Little change really," explains Keys. "This is something that we and a number of the major contractors have been doing for a long time already. As long as the requirements are considered in the design stage, there should be no additional cost to the contractor. The important part is ensuring that the supply chain is integrated within the design team."

Implementation costs

For contractors that don't already comply with the standards, the transition may not be so smooth. Especially given that the cost of implementing the Lifetime Homes standards varies dramatically. The Chartered Institute of Housing in Northern Ireland and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation conducted a comparative study into the cost of meeting Building Regulations and Lifetime Home standards. According to that study, the additional cost of building Lifetime Homes ranged from £165 to a maximum of only £545 per dwelling, depending on the size, layout and specification of the property.

But Rukin believes this is a gross underestimate. "'Typically, we have found that it can add anything up to extra £3,000 onto the cost of construction, depending on the size and layout of the dwelling. It's a lot easier to implement on larger properties, but for the smaller properties it can be more challenging as you can't physically make a house bigger."

So, while the private sector may not have taken to the new standards quite so well, social housing contractors are more welcoming to the plans. Maybe that's because for most the new standards have been incorporated into their day-to-day operations for some time. Or maybe it's because when working for the Government, the additional cost of construction is less important.

One thing is for sure, though. Any scheme designed to improve the quality of life for society should be welcomed, particularly when such simple steps can make a huge difference. Only time will tell if it's to be a success or not, but with the 2012 Olympics looming and London the centre of attention, it will be interesting to see if the scheme proves a winner or if it falls at the first hurdle.

New dwellings should be designed to suit people of all ages.

Lifetime Homes form part of a wider initiative - Lifetime Neighbourhoods - which aims to address common design faults.

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