Preparing for an ageing population II: Intergenerational Housing

In the latest of our Building Sustainable Tenancies series, we look at how the UK compares to the rest of Europe in families living together.

In the latest of our Building Sustainable Tenancies series, we look at how the UK compares to the rest of Europe in families living together.

The UK is getting older; in the next 25 years the number of people over 85 is set to double to 3.2 million. As such, designing and building new homes, has to take into account more than ever, the population’s changing personal care needs.  The cost of social care is rising in conjunction with growing levels of social isolation and loneliness and in response, housing providers globally are exploring a new way of living, known as intergenerational housing. From student living, to family life, all the way up to care homes, we are accustomed in society, to living alongside those of roughly equivalent age. In contrast to this, intergenerational housing schemes are bringing different age ranges together.

Intergenerational housing can refer to a few strategies within the housing sector. According to the UK Government it is defined as: “People from three or more generations living within the same household.” For some families this may mean moving a parent into a spare room or ‘granny flat’, boomerang kids moving home to have their own children or in the case of some councils, adapting large properties to house extended families.  Alongside this, intergenerational housing can refer to estates or complexes that cater to people across their lifespan and that also encourage through design, the intermixing of people of different ages. This has also occurred in supported housing models with care – for example young single parents living alongside the elderly.

In comparison to the rest of Europe, the UK has the lowest levels of intergenerational housing. Communal living settings in the UK are often generationally set, such as student accommodation, nursing homes, boarding schools and children’s homes, with exceptions being prisons and temporary living arrangements or hostels. What most of these examples have in common is that they are institutionalised methods of habitation and care, rather than working community models for everyday living.

“At the heart of intergenerational living are formal and informal networks of multi-age group interaction. Within the groups I witnessed the emphasis was on simply being together and having fun.” Gita Prasad, Supported Independent Living, The Lady Hind Trust

Housing Lin, which provides communal and intergenerational living in the Netherlands and Denmark, has put together a framework for embedding intergenerational housing into a social housing provider’s design principles. These include, providing shared services – communal facilities on the ground floor, such as kitchens, a reading room or a garden, as well as ‘meeting points’ in corridors. Skills exchanges are also on offer in return for truly affordable housing – this may mean offering no or low-income accommodation in exchange for assistance for caring for older residents for a certain number of hours per week. This type of scheme reduces the overly clinical models predominantly available for the elderly, whilst helping to reduce social isolation. For areas with high student populations, the affordability of this may prove to be an attractive option. For housing providers this would mean re-modeling tenure status and a careful examination of the rights of those gaining housing provision in exchange for unpaid work and services.

In 2015-16 36% of all non-schools expenditure by local authorities in the UK was spent on adult social care.  If we are to meet the growing needs of an ageing population, a joined-up approach from housing providers, the health services, care providers and community infrastructure needs to be undertaken. Building housing to accommodate people across their lifespan and encourage them to interact with others could bring notable savings to the overall social care bill. In January 2019, the NHS proposed in its Long Term Plan  that there is a real argument for bringing together the planning and infrastructure for housing, health and social care commissioning. With the aim of designing communities for preventative care and cohesion rather than crisis point care. The task is a mammoth one.

“Inter-generational living in the UK may also become more common as the population ages. In some European countries nearly half of people over the age of 55 live with adult children, whereas less than 15% do so in the UK. Inter-generational living could bring benefits to all age groups, addressing loneliness and social isolation among older people, facilitating care for older and younger relatives, and reducing housing costs. The increasing numbers of generations alive at the same time suggests that demand for inter-generational living will increase in the future.” Future of an aging population. UK.GOV 

Preparation is needed by Housing Providers to future proof themselves against changing resident needs over the next 10 years. This starts with understanding current customers and actively listening to them as their needs change, in conjunction with hard data. A review of existing housing stock for its potential to be retrofitted for an intergenerational future would likely be necessary, along with developing services which encourage customers in their own financial, social and personal wellbeing to build stronger, more resilient communities. This could include advice services for whole families with elderly members, as well as individuals to put in place five or ten year plans.

Case Study: Kent County Council, Thanet

Kent County Council undertook a pioneering housing experiment in partnership with local academics. Kent Council bought a historic but unused hotel on Thanet seafront for £150,000 and spent a further £1million converting the property to be suitable for intergenerational living for one family. The Cotter family applied for the experiment and moved from three separate properties within the town into the five-bathroom, three kitchen and seven-bedroom building.  Three generations now live in the property which is being closely monitored for its success as a scheme.

“We’re not all paying separate electricity bills, gas bills, water bills, council tax and everything else. So we’re all now paying one lump sum for the house. The house was also designed to ensure it met high environmental standards. For example, water from the washing machine is recycled for use in the toilet, which means a household of six people uses the equivalent of a two-person household.”

Cotter family member


Case Study: Nathalie Salmon Home (H.O.M.E), Chicago US

A set of apartments, which brings a mix of people together: 41 elderly residents, 7 resident assistants, 2 security mentors and 4 families (in larger apartments). All areas of the building were built for accessibility needs and the seven resident assistants, all of whom are students, work 40 hours a week, split between time with the elderly residents and work within the building itself in exchange for room and board.

Evidence points to growing challenges in assisting us to grow old safely and happily as our society and services age. However, it is true that for many of us, we are staying younger for longer; our parents’ frailty in comparison to that of their parents’ at the same age is markable. What it means culturally and physically to be ‘old’ is also a changing notion. For this reason, is it important for housing and social care design to be focused around keeping people contributing for as long as they are able to share skills and knowledge with those coming up after them. Design for multigenerational usage and accessibility will be a key method of achieving this cohesion.

“Life is about human relationships and that doesn’t change with age”

Bob, formerly Britain’s oldest man, passed away aged 111