A new Chapter

My nephew Zach has just graduated with a 1st in architecture from the Bartlett. He wants to work in senior housing. He says it’s the most vibrant area of architecture where he feels there is the greatest scope to make a meaningful contribution. Hallelulah!

In 2009, when I was asked to research housing models for Richard Best’s taskforce for recommendations on how to improve ‘Senior Housing’, the first letters of those two words mockingly hinted at a 4-letter one to describe its average qualities. The public sector was too dependent on wall-to-wall linoleum, whereas the private sector was all pink soft furnishings that cruelly stressed how those with a Y chromosome would not need housing after a certain age. Recreational spaces were ‘telly lounges’, while airless double-banked corridors were de facto communal spaces where residents spent their lives without any natural light in tired chairs while carers raced between the more urgent demands of residents confined to their tiny bedsits. Within a decade the sector has become the area where young architects want to be employed, thanks mostly to the work of Housing LIN in making Lord Best’s HAPPI recommendations take hold.

This year’s Housing Design Awards are the best evidence of that. The Awards have long attracted the best from the sector, but typically one or two schemes worthy of attention among dozens of entries. This year there were 164 entries and a third of the judges’ shortlist were specialist developments for over 55s. For the second year in succession the city of Stoke submitted a scheme designed by PRP that would have won an award in any previous year. But this level of brilliance was not good enough to win this year (although the same client-architect team stormed the HAPPI award in 2017) because the private sector entries includes more than one tour-de-force. It’s easy to roll out phrases like ‘new benchmark’, and in reality the phrase is overused. But when you finally come across a scheme that feels like every town should have one, cliché can help make sure everyone hears you.

Chapter House is that benchmark scheme, just 12 1-bed apartments and 26 2-beds, all wrapped up into a beautifully detailed new block in the conservation area of Lichfield. It’s small enough to raise doubts over what level of communal provision such a scheme can offer. But it manages this particularly well by linking into a local heritage asset, a publicly accessible walled garden called Monk’s Walk. It is clear from the film interviewing residents that this allows a perfect balance between the need to feel part of a small secure group and the desire for wider social interaction, ideally with those with a shared interest, here gardening. I recommend you watch the film and listen in particular to one of the residents explaining how they design suits her need to be able to withdraw to a private space, then rejoin the throng when she feels in need of company. Many of the people I spoke to during the HAPPI report were reticent about living in a large development, however much fun life could be made – think Professor Hans Becker and the Rotterdam Humanitas developments – because they felt large schemes dependent on institutional support systems were culturally awkward for them. Chapter House offers some ideas for how schemes can step down from 70-100 homes to a more domestic scale without choking off the variety and spice of life without which they could be cramped and sterile.

OK… clearly the residents need plenty of cash to pay for the privilege. But as the HAPPI team learned (to their shock), nearly all of this country’s housing wealth is in the hands of this generation. And they’ll only move on if there is a Chapter House or similar in their community.

So, over to you, Zach. Get designing.

Chapter House