Houses For Aging Socially

Aging resiliently: A new approach to retirement housing

By Lindsay Brugger, AIA, September 19, 2017


The University of Arkansas Community Design Center, a member of the National Resilience Initiative, is pushing to rethink housing for an aging population

Cities both large and small face a growing range of challenges, from the effects of climate change to growing migrant populations to inadequate infrastructure to cyber-attacks. Resilience helps cities, no matter their size, adapt in the face of these challenges and stay prepared for the future.

From an architect’s perspective, resilience requires thinking about a community and its challenges holistically—including chronic stresses such as high unemployment, food and water shortages, and endemic violence, as well as sudden events like earthquakes, floods, and disease outbreaks.

The challenges of an aging population

One of the most common chronic stresses that cities face today is the challenge of a rapidly aging population. In fact, by 2030, 79 million baby boomers will have turned 65, at the rate of 10,000 per day. Currently, the nation’s housing stock and neighborhoods are ill-equipped to serve the common mobility, access, and social needs of seniors.

Nearly 62 percent of America’s housing stock is single-family detached housing. Many of these homes are unable to adapt to the evolving needs of homeowners, such as wheelchair use, general ease in mobility, and walkable access to neighbors and key amenities like supermarkets, community centers, and health care. For residents who choose to age in place, particularly in rural areas, this urban design structure makes them more susceptible to social isolation and loss of purpose than residents in more communal facilities like nursing homes.

Designing with resilience in mind

Focused on addressing the challenges facing the built environment of today and tomorrow, the University of Arkansas Community Design Center (UACDC) was launched in 1995 as a local outreach program. Over the past two decades, UACDC has evolved into a type of architectural “teaching hospital,” where staff and students provide design and planning services to communities nationwide. A member of the National Resilience Initiative since 2015, UACDC has prioritized development of public interest designs that provide solutions to the “stresses and shocks” felt by cities and towns across the country.

Rethinking retirement housing

In a project sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, a UACDC team completed a housing study focused on Freeman, South Dakota, a small town with an average age close to 50, compared to a statewide average of 36. Attractive because of its schools and medical facilities, the town has grown as more rural areas consolidate toward the services offered in Freeman.

With input across disciplines, including gerontologists, architects, and interior designers, the Third Place Ecologies team developed a framework to retool components of the familiar single-family home to better support Freeman’s aging population. Outlined in their new book, Houses for Aging Socially: Developing Third Place Ecologies, new types of housing fabrics aim to revitalize Freeman neighborhoods with homes that combine the look and feel of single family homes with the interconnectedness and social benefits of cooperative dwelling places. Key features include:

  • “Hyper-porches” that create an outdoor extension of living rooms, combining once-separate individual porches into a larger structure serving multiple units
  • “Garage galleries” which act as mixed-use spaces to accommodate both car parking and neighborhood communal workspaces, and can be designed to lodge anything from shared tool libraries and equipment storage to community rooms and workspaces
  • Streets designed to maximize living space and minimize dependence on cars

This evolution of single-family house fabrics introduces informal spaces that facilitate greater socialization and entrepreneurial activity without sacrificing privacy. Residents have greater opportunity to socialize with each other and reduce isolation—even helping one another with daily activities or sharing caregiving services—characteristics that enhance community resilience. Housing designed to reflect new economies of cooperation benefits not just older residents, but the entire community, by increasing connections and alleviating strain on caregivers.

The blending of public and private spaces highlighted by the Third Place Ecologies team demonstrates the power  architects have to address chronic stresses such as an aging population, whether they reside in high-density urban settings or more rural communities. The creative strategies and innovations to increase engagement among residents of all ages will better equip towns to adapt to demographic changes and allow citizens to age in place, no matter the size of their community.

Lindsay Brugger, AIA, is manager of resilient communities at AIA.

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