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Designing homes that are fit for the future

A team of Northumbria University academics has been commissioned to design and develop a purpose-built home office within a prototype house, that will allow older people to work effectively from home and remain productive beyond retirement.

Our homes are vital to our health, as well as our economy, and are central to how we live our lives. As we age or become infirm, a home can impact our ability to lead a happy, healthy, and fulfilled life. But the UK housing industry does not currently respond to the challenges of growing old. It continues to build homes that are very difficult to adapt, compromising the ability of people to ‘age in place’ - a term used to describe a person living in the residence of their choice, for as long as they are able, as they age.

In a bid to provide more adaptive and innovative solutions, the Design Age Institute has granted Northumbria University funding to design and develop a purpose-built home office within a prototype home, to be built at new housing development South Seaham Garden Village in County Durham. Led by Paul Jones, Professor of Architecture at Northumbria, the design research is one of six Pathfinder Projects announced by the Design Age Institute to develop commercially viable products and services that will enable individuals and communities to maintain an active and joyful life at every age.

The project is also being supported by developer and housing association Karbon Homes as part of their commitment to ageing innovation and ageing-in-place strategies within the village, building on previous research they have worked on in collaboration with the University. The ultimate aim is to create a blueprint of how older people can work efficiently and effectively from home and remain productive beyond retirement age. Layout, ergonomics, flexible and demountable furniture, lighting, and smart technology will all be considered in the proposed home office. It will be codesigned with members of the Royal College of Occupational Therapists, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, representatives of the older community, in collaboration with the National Innovation Centre for Ageing (NICA) and Voice, a community of patients, carers and members of the public contributing their lived experience to inform health research.

Professor Paul Jones explained the timeliness of the project in responding to the rapid changes in the employment market for older people: “Since the onset of the pandemic, working at home has become the norm. We know that older people (along with the young) were most likely to be made redundant as a result of Covid. The cost of living has risen sharply, and pensions are not keeping pace with this rise. Many older people have therefore decided to set up businesses at home.

“However, the domestic environment and the functionality of the home is not always conducive. Long hours in front of a monitor in the same position, for instance, is not suitable. Research suggests older workers need more breaks; they need to exercise and stretch; have access to a more tailored ergonomic environment; and opportunity to collaborate with others to develop ideas and avoid loneliness.”  How a dwelling can be adapted to serve as both a workplace and a home is another factor that the team will consider, which is especially important if space is at a premium.  “All of these issues form the basis of interesting design challenges that the research project aims to address,” added Professor Jones.

Other successful projects supported by The Design Age Institute, include cargo-carrying robots, an app to engage people with their hearing health through birdsong, an age-inclusive bank, data-driven diabetes management and a two-wheeled personal electronic vehicle. Colum Lowe, Director, Design Age Institute, said: “From health and mobility to housing and financial security, each of these innovative Pathfinder Projects focuses on a different fundamental part of day-to-day life. They all have the important common goal of developing desirable and commercially viable products and services for an ageing society.”

From accommodating increased home working  and an ageing society, to reducing energy usage and withstanding the impact of climate change, find out more about how Northumbria University is helping to create homes that meet a growing list of changing demands here.

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