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Co-housing for Successful Ageing-in-Place

  Published: 24 September 2018
  Theme: Planning

An increasing number of cities are planning and implementing co-housing residential projects. Co-housing refers to a housing model that seeks to promote greater community involvement and intergenerational mutual support within a residential development through the following practices:

  • Involving residents in the design of the co-housing development (e.g. deciding how a void space is used)
  • Enabling self-governance and active participation among residents (e.g. taking turns to upkeep a communal kitchen)
  • Making conventionally private facilities common (e.g. laundry areas)
  • Leveraging social contact design principles to increase the frequency of productive contact between neighbours (e.g. all units lead to a lobby that doubles up as a common tool shed-cum-workshop)

As the emphasis of co-housing is on communality over privacy, the model typically has more extensive shared facilities — such as shared kitchens — compared to living in condominiums or gated communities. Co-housing should also be differentiated from co-living, which involves transient living arrangements that typically cater to a niche demographic — for example, millennial entrepreneurs.

The scope of how co-housing is defined is also broadening. In Vienna, Austria, city authorities and developers, with the addition of resident input, have been playing active roles in shaping the Austrian capital’s Baugruppen co-housing developments for positive outcomes. In Denmark and Japan, the social sector is also involved in leading a handful of co-housing projects, in particular for seniors1. Cities are recognising that intergenerational co-housing can give seniors the social support they need while they remain empowered as independent actors in a connected community.

The Current State of Ageing in Place

An increasing number of urban residents are preferring to “age in place” as they grow older2. “Ageing in place” may be understood as the ability to live in one’s community — as opposed to living in a care facility — comfortably and independently even as one ages. However, currently, there are few intermediate options (between assisted living and remaining in a home without help) that seek to both maintain the seniors’ quality of life and improve their mental well-being without the need for relocation. As a result, oftentimes, elderly residents tend to move into a home care facility, away from their existing community, once they begin to exhibit a marked decrease in mobility and an increased reliance on others to complete everyday tasks.

A 2011 survey of co-housing residents in the US showed that 96 percent of them reported an improved quality of life and 75 percent felt their physical health was better than others of the same age3. Moreover, 81 percent of the residents engaged in sharing of equipment and household appliances with one another, indicating high levels of trust within the community. With these benefits in mind, the article looks at the possible role that co-housing, as a model, could play in enabling seniors to effectively age in place.

Facilitating Flexible Use and Management of Space

To allow residents to effectively age in place, various co-housing projects have looked at enhancing the flexibility and range of uses for spaces in residential blocks via modifiable, replicable and low-cost measures — such as retractable walls4 — that involve minimal structural change.

In Vienna’s Seestern Aspern (a 27-apartment intergenerational co-housing project), each floor is designed with units that incorporate a “flex” space, which residents could choose to eventually give up when, for example, their children grow up and leave home. Creating flex spaces may facilitate downsizing — and hence cost-saving — for seniors without them having to relocate. The doors to these spaces can be resealed with drywall, and the space can be either returned to communal use, or availed to an individual or the neighbouring units for rent.

By enabling the units to be modifiable, the residents are able to better optimise the use of their space to accommodate their changing needs over time, and organise the space around them to be opened up for other uses that could be shared with the community, if desired. However, for successful co-sharing of such flex spaces and to create a communal culture, a number of co-housing projects look beyond just the provision of such space, but at ways to engage resident participation.

Flexible spaces for community use

Flexible spaces for community use in a co-housing development. Image credit: Einszueins Architektur (Click to enlarge)

Facilitating Resident Participation

The participatory aspect of co-housing could enable residents to effectively age in place in number of ways. For example, Vienna’s Aspern Baugruppen is a cluster of five co-housing projects that encouraged resident participation5 at different stages of development. During the design and configuration stage of the co-housing development, city authorities appointed community development advisors to each project to facilitate interactions between to-be residents, developers and architects.

Ernst Gruber, a consultant involved in the project, said that several possible floor plans were shared with the prospective residents to allow them to choose the final plan in discussion with one another and with other stakeholders. The residents were also able to suggest a list of communal facilities that they were prepared to share as part of the co-housing development.

The aforementioned Seestern Aspern is a co-housing project within Aspern Baugruppen that incorporates a communal kitchen and laundry space. According to Gruber, “the most effective kinds of shared spaces in co-housing are communal kitchens and flexible use spaces.” By allowing the residents to take part in the initial creation of their living spaces, including the shared facilities, the project aimed to evoke a sense of co-ownership between the residents and to mitigate downstream dispute on the shared use of space.

Moreover, “prospective residents not only have a role in deciding which spaces to include, they are also assigned responsibility in managing these spaces,” Gruber adds. Beyond involvement in initial planning and design stages, the eventual curation and management of the shared spaces within co-housing offers long-term opportunities to empower seniors to age in place and keep them meaningfully engaged with the rest of society on a day-to-day basis.

Likewise, the neighbourhood of Orba in Valencia, Spain, has planned to adopt the intergenerational co-housing approach for nearly 2,800 apartments as part of a larger revitalisation project. One aspect of the plan calls for “the addition of doors, staircases, corridors, common areas and satellite rooms” to better connect the 5,000-odd residents, many of whom are seniors6, creating an ecosystem of shared space and resources7.

In particular, spaces that have been vacated over time are to be repurposed as communal spaces, such as woodworking workshops and small design studios that leverage on the existing skills of senior residents. Senior residents with a reduced need for space can also choose to avail their spaces (to another tenant or for communal use) and lower their expenses, like how the flex spaces in Vienna’s Seestern Aspern work. Such ideas could make any co-housing project visitor-worthy and create an activity loop whereby the senior residents could engage in skills transfer to the younger generation, and remain socially active within the community.

Co-housing in the Singapore Context

In Singapore, the intergenerational co-housing concept — as described in the examples — has yet to be implemented. Hence, there are evident opportunities to explore new residential typologies that could cater to the growing preference of the senior population to age in place and remain socially engaged within the community.

Established in 1976 and currently within a public housing (Housing and Development Board) rental block, the AWWA Senior Community Home8 in Ang Mo Kio is a step towards integrating senior residents within the larger community to facilitate ageing in place. While AWWA’s co-housing model is only targeted at residents 60 years of age and above, the location itself — which occupies levels two to four of the housing block — enables the elderly residents to remain in a wider community neighbourhood setting instead of living in an otherwise more institutionalised environment. Regular activities and events are also organised to facilitate active social participation and interaction between the residents and the community.

While AWWA’s co-housing model for seniors shows the potential for the co-housing model in Singapore to be implemented on a larger scale as an intergenerational model akin to the Seestern Aspern and Orba projects, the success of co-housing projects is still highly dependent on existing social and cultural conditions. In Singapore, co-housing concepts are relatively nascent, which may suggest that the business case of this housing model — and the social receptiveness towards it — has yet to gain strong momentum. More market sensing, pilots and studies are needed to see if this promising housing model can indeed take off in future.

References

  1. Soh, Emily. (2016) Social Sector-led Elderly Housing in Denmark and Japan.
  2. Wiles, J et al. (2011) The Meaning of “Aging in Place” to Older People. The Gerontologist; 52(3), 357-366
  3. http://www.cohousing.org/sites/default/files/attachments/StateofCohousingintheU.S.%203-6-17.pdf
  4. http://knkx.org/post/not-group-house-not-commune-europe-experiments-co-housing
  5. http://righttobuildtoolkit.org.uk/case-studies/vienna/
  6. http://lifeedited.com/creating-housing-with-sharing-in-its-dna/
  7. https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2015/02/16/385528919/not-a-group-house-not-a-commune-europe-experiments-with-co-housing
  8. https://www.awwa.org.sg/services-for-seniors/senior-community-home/
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