The ageing of aquarius

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Retiring baby boomers see the house as an asset, rather than a symbol of identity. And they are about to exert considerable influence on housing. Shane Murray outlines research that addresses this phenomenon by drawing out the embodied knowledge in architectural design.

FFor baby boomers the home is increasingly viewed as an asset and its capital value as a conduit to a range of future lifestyle choices. This is in marked contrast to previous generations, who viewed the home as a fixed symbol of personal identity and stability and as a symbolic anchor for the living generations of the family. The values of consumption and lifestyle have begun to take precedence over the role of the home as anchor of personal identity. Where once stability was a cornerstone of this group’s identity, now flexibility with regard to lifestyle intentions is most important and the home is a facilitator of this.1

Ageing in place is also important to this group. However, this is an effect of attachment to a region rather than to the family home – baby boomers are comfortable with housing moves. Their attachment to location has much more to do with the pleasures found in that area, their familiarity with it, the manner in which its facilities contribute to an enriched lifestyle, and their proximity to people they know. This means that the desire for independence, flexibility and consumer and lifestyle choices increasingly take precedence and challenge notions of old age and family obligations. Indeed, according to research by Olsberg and Winters, one third of baby boomers expect to use up all their assets before they die.2

Current housing models for the baby boomer cohort in Australia demonstrate little or no consideration of the future retirement activity of this important group and its market significance. Issues deriving from the increase in dwelling-based activity, which retirement will create, and transitional modes of activity between work and retirement are largely ignored. This suggests a growing need for alternative forms of housing in urban housing markets that would better meet the needs of this important group in a context where there will be greater reliance on household resources and less on public provision. Retirement-based social interaction, shared use of open space for recreation, sharing of resources including personal transport and household articles, and mutual caring and support are also mostly disregarded in current housing, save for the narrow range of options offered by current retirement village development.

As a response to these issues, The Ageing of Aquarius project was established to develop design-based research that would explore more appropriate housing models for the retiring baby boomers. The project has now analysed the complex range of contextual issues that influence the housing needs of the baby boomers as they approach and experience retirement. This research has proceeded in a manner not normally encountered in the building industry – by articulating and communicating significant elements of embodied architectural knowledge from a range of architectural case studies. This is based on the conviction that architectural design contains important embodied knowledge, which could be applied generally to dwellings with negligible cost, but that this is not generally discussed nor disseminated.

While there is an extremely rich historical legacy and rich contemporary culture of architecturally designed housing in Australia, this makes a negligible contribution to overall housing provision in this country. General housing has very low levels of design innovation, with the majority of housing design undertaken by construction companies with little or no architectural input, and it relies on low-technology, cottage-based craft skills for its physical realization. The typical industry-provided house plan and design has not changed substantially for 60 years. Architecture has a negligible relationship with the issues of general housing and a continuing difficulty in articulating the contribution that it could make to general housing through its fundamental disciplinary procedure – architectural design.

In the past it has been possible for the housing industry to only superficially consider or largely ignore the design of its product and instead adhere to conventional and unchanging models of housing provision. This is partly because of the small-scale nature of the industry, as well as the traditional conservatism of the housing consumer and the financial incentives of the Australian taxation system, which encourage decisions about purchase based on the capitalization of the asset above its applicability to the actual dwelling needs of the occupant. However, the significant changes facing the industry – stemming from the impacts of demographic change and the growing diversity of household make-up – suggest that occupants of certain niches in the market will increasingly make housing decisions based on the ability of the dwelling to meet their specific physical dwelling needs. A large proportion of these demands are likely to emanate from the baby boomer cohort as it enters retirement.

The Ageing of Aquarius incorporates socioeconomic and demographic research and then demonstrates, through the application of design knowledge, the physical consequences of this research as it relates to the manner in which we occupy our dwellings.

Housing is widely researched by many disciplines in Australia. The socioeconomic and demographic characteristics of households are well documented and discussed, but these activities remain abstract and detached from the physicality of the dwelling. Social science research into this situation inevitably views the generic house as a “given”. However, new ways of using the house and diverse and changing household structures suggest that alternative spatial relationships within the house and reconsidered relationships to their exteriors might better meet the needs of many contemporary and future households.

In our research the complex issues and scenarios facing the baby boomer cohort in retirement were established. Significantly, these issues and scenarios were connected to specific physical consequences that related to physical needs in the dwelling. By applying design knowledge to this socioeconomic and demographic material, physical criteria are established that may not have been apparent without the involvement of the design discipline. One very important aspect of our research has been the development of methods whereby we are able to communicate the process of interaction between conventional research methods and design thinking, as well as the design knowledge inherent in architecturally designed housing projects. To demonstrate this interaction we have used a form of representation that we have called a matrix.

The matrix could be described literally as an expanding network, where different forms of research are introduced into various parts of the network and their interrelationship is graphically mapped. The matrix was developed from an examination of two adjacent primary research trajectories: key retirement needs, established from the socioeconomic, demographic and contextual research; and simultaneous research into design compositions that dealt with specific physical dwelling needs and spatial solutions for them. Through the matrix process, the relationship between these two often distinct forms of inquiry are revealed. This demonstrates the dynamic linking of contextual research to potential design solutions in an extended and expanding process, which links abstract needs to their physical implications on dwelling design.

The matrix process produced a very large network of interrelationships extending for many pages. However, it also indicates what commonsense would have suggested: that the three key needs or issues facing the baby boomers as they enter retirement are the financing of retirement, location networks connected to retirement and the quality of retirement. While these may be quite obvious conclusions, the iterations of the matrix process revealed how their relationship to dwelling design has many consequences. If we consider one of these issues – “financing retirement” – a number of further issues ensue. Examining just one of these – “working from home” – several physical impacts become apparent (fig.1). This leads to an increasingly detailed listing of the possible impact at a physical level of what was originally an abstract concept. This matrix is extremely detailed. However, the type of interpretive observation required to make it is very familiar to architects. The matrix makes visible the type of embodied knowledge that architects tacitly apply every day in their practice.

A conventional response to this matrix would have been to immediately embark on dwelling designs. Instead, we sought to demonstrate the value of extant but unarticulated architectural knowledge that could respond to these needs. This involved the deep analysis of 30 case studies in order to reveal design knowledge that would be relevant to the needs established in the earlier research. The case study projects were selected on the basis that they each demonstrate a number of design elements and relationships that are able to respond to the criteria established in the matrix. Importantly, the case studies use housing models that in many instances were not initially intended as retirement dwellings. This reveals an important aspect of the process whereby architectural knowledge that was intended to address one set of criteria can be analysed and used for purposes that may not have been initially intended.

A second project, by Ian McDougall from the mid-1980s, Cheddar Road Aged Housing, is specifically aimed at an ageing cohort. In this case study a whole string of design strategies have relevance beyond their particular application here and could be applied to particular issues facing the baby boomers. The main emphasis in this case study is the treatment of external relationships, siting and combinations of building elements.In one example, the Napier Street Housing of 2002 by Kerstin Thompson is analysed. The project was commissioned by an enlightened developer. Half of the development is for owner occupation and the balance consists of seven terraces for rental aimed at professionals moving into the area. What is of interest in our analysis is that, in addition to its obvious architectural qualities, the project contains careful and considered design elements relevant to a range of issues established in our research on the baby boomers. These design elements were not initially intended for application to this group. The case study begins with a simple architectural explanation of the building. Subsequent analysis establishes a number of criteria that were identified in the earlier matrix project. These include the treatment of private open space in collective housing, flexibility of use through appropriate spatial planning, opportunities for zoning the interior to accommodate different forms of occupation and the relationship to external space in achieving this flexibility. The diagrams above show a detail of one element that demonstrates how the internal finishes, the provision of a window onto a courtyard and proximity to a bathroom permit the garage space to be occupied as a workroom or even a bedroom.

We have established this type of information for 30 case studies and the data sheets comprise almost 200 pages of analytical drawings. From the lists developed, many solutions repeat themselves. Key themes emerge throughout the matrix and drive the hierarchy of case study choices. The themes can be demonstrated through different physical arrangements over several case studies, revealing the very flexible nature of design as a problem-solving technique. An array of possible physical consequences and related design concepts are revealed through this process. The extraction of embodied knowledge within the case study process can never be exhaustive. New aspects of this knowledge will be revealed in subsequent iterations of the analysis. The incorporation of this knowledge into the design of new dwelling models will also not be a direct process. New and unforeseen design knowledge will enter the process when dwellings are designed. However, articulating this process through a number of modes makes available a much more detailed overview of the design knowledge that might be applied to the design of a particular dwelling. Importantly, this knowledge is also presented in a format of simple diagramming, which makes the knowledge communicable beyond the discipline.

We are yet to discover what the ultimate retirement housing choices of the baby boomers will be. Several national planning strategies suggest that baby boomers will move to medium-density housing in activity centres or transit-orientated developments. Legislation or the complexity of such developments ensures architectural involvement. In these instances it will be incumbent on architects to recognize the dwelling needs of the baby boomers. However, affordability issues will mean that many baby boomers will remain in place or down-scale in existing suburbs or new housing in greenfield developments. The provision of well-designed, appropriate housing in these locations will be our greatest challenge, as a significant amount of the projected new housing will be infill in existing suburban locations. Our research aims to articulate what architects do: what the nature of architectural knowledge is and how this can contribute with negligible cost to dwelling design. Importantly, it does this in a manner that can be communicated to those outside the discipline. Architectural research that engages with the actual modes of the discipline will become increasingly important as we confront a dynamic and complex future. Fundamental to our conduct of architectural research will be our ability to articulate our knowledge base, the methods of its application and, most importantly, the value of its contribution to a wider constituency.

Dr Shane Murray is professor of architecture at RMIT University. The Ageing of Aquarius was funded through a Linkage grant from the ARC with industry partners Mirvac HPA and Cash Research. The research team comprised Shane Murray, Mike Berry, Peter Downton, Louise Wright and Simon Whibley.

1,2 Dr Diana Olsberg and Mark Winters, Ageing in Place: Intergenerational and intrafamilial housing transfers and shifts in later life. AHURI Final Report No 94. (Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, October 2005.)

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