A New Kind of Retirement Living

DMA Associate Paul Wells discusses a new kind of retirement living

In the current economic climate, investors are looking for other ways to use their land as an alternative to traditional residential. There has been much focus on the student housing market leaving the untapped opportunity for homes for the retiree market often overlooked.

In the UK there are just over 2 million students. By comparison, 18% of the UK population is now over 65, this equates to almost 12 million people. Of these, 3.4m have equity of between £250k – £500k and 1.3m are considering downsizing (compare this figure with c. 157k owner occupied properties built in the UK and it would seemingly be fairly clear where the largest potential is). There are, however, a number of factors that affect this market.

Firstly, and probably most importantly, is the perceived stigma against the idea of retirement homes. 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. Older people don’t see themselves as a homogenous group. They are also likely to be much more active than retirees in previous generations. A second reason is that many older people don’t want to leave the homes and gardens into which they have invested so much time and emotional energy. Thirdly, there are concerns that joining a retirement village will lead to a loss of independence and potential alienation from the greater community. According to research by The Age of No Retirement, 83% of respondents feel they are not like everyone else in their age group and want to mix with people of different age groups and generations.

It is clear that retirees, many of whom are from the relatively wealthy baby boomer generation, have to be given a more aspirational reason to release their family-sized homes to the next generation.

Good design can help create places retirees want to move to, and in doing so offer a genuinely alternative way of living emphasising companionship, community and independence. It is a sector of design that is both challenging and exciting.

The majority of retirement village residents come from within a 5-mile radius, so maintaining links to the local community is important. Retirement villages in mainland European countries are often centered around a community hub, these enable social interaction within the development and to the greater community. At one development in Groningen, Netherlands the developer created an internal double volume space termed the ‘indoor town square’ and used it for markets, concerts and community gatherings.

In our hotel designs we often incorporate shared ‘front of house’ spaces that are attractive to the residents and the greater local community. In many cases this is a destination restaurant or bar, but it could also be a café, spa facility or even a delicatessen.

In the case of hospitality these are primarily income generating spaces. In a retirement village they have to strive to be more than this, they need to have a community focus, a place where residents can mix with local people of all ages in a well-designed and attractive setting, mitigating any feelings of alienation as residents mature.

Creating design with flexibility for future adaptation of apartments for wheelchair use, careful selection of appliances and sanitary ware and awareness of residents’ requirements for space and light are all factors that are as important in the hospitality sector as they are for retiree living.

Traditional migration to the coast is no longer as common with increasing numbers of retirees choosing to return to the city to benefit from good transportation links, amenities and social activities. With this in mind the country model of a horizontal retirement village can be taken to a vertical one, creating comfortable homes with integrated restaurants, gyms, spas, community hubs and health care facilities.

Urban retirement communities are immensely popular in many other countries, but have only recently started growing in popularity in the UK. In London we are seeing a number of schemes at the luxury end. One such development, Battersea Place, offers residents a concierge service, spa, heated indoor pool, gym, billiard room, sun lounge, private cinema, chef-led restaurant and a hairdresser.

Within the UK, new homes for the elderly should not be seen as ‘God’s waiting room’. People want to move to a place where they have space to take the majority of their acquired belongings and sentimental possessions. They want to live somewhere where they are secure, comfortable and relaxed, but also connected to the community.

Our extensive knowledge of hospitality design, coupled with growing residential experience, gives us an interesting perspective on this sector. We can also look to our experience in the Serviced Apartment sector to create imaginative and well-designed apartments that offer retirees comfortable and usable space as well as incorporating full life cycle considerations.

Whether in an urban or rural setting, what is clear is that a sense of place created through good design coupled with understanding the end user is key to making these villages successful.