Lawray’s competition entry for “Beyond Isolation: Senior Housing” reimagines defunct department stores to create high quality inclusive senior housing that reconnects seniors with their local communities.

As people get older, they are at greater risk of social exclusion, loneliness, and isolation, which in turn can have a negative impact on physical and mental health. The “Beyond Isolation” international ideas competition organised by Buildner, invited participants to conceive innovative housing strategies to reintegrate elderly residents into the social fabric and ‘enable them to engage with their local communities in meaningful ways’ (Buildner).

Given the freedom to select a site of their choice, our London team developed an innovative strategy of “High Homes” that proposes to adapt defunct department stores in High Streets into age-friendly lifetime accommodation for people in their twilight years. Located in the hearts of the cities and towns, these clusters aim to break down the current design trend of isolating senior housing schemes in the outskirts or quiet urban areas and instead provide residential and mixed-use amenities for the elderly and local community.

Social connectivity will regenerate High Streets

Through its unconventional urban design intent and inclusive use programme, the High Homes concept aims to tackle the social and physical isolation of the elderly, increase knowledge and experience exchange between diverse demographic groups and enhance the community spirit. Breathing new life into decaying former department store buildings will foster a sustainable design culture as well as address the Government Strategy of regenerating High Streets.

Beyond Isolation High Street View

Inclusive design

Whilst this design approach is applicable to any disused department store, our concept took the former Debenhams Store in Bedford (closed and shuttered for seven years) as the main site. By considering architectural design, psychology, perception and sustainability, High Homes will make a positive contribution to the urban fabric; a design concept that can be replicated internationally to tackle the disconnection of Lifetime Homes by enhancing the inclusivity of spaces and places.

Decolonising segregated approach to urban design

Throughout history, senior housing has taken a variety of forms and institutional titles. Yet, the general design strategy and perception of these establishments remains unchanged. Grim isolation islands, these complex networks of building blocks connected with courtyards or corridors secluded within impregnable walls, separated the seniors from the rest of the towns and cities. Disconnected from essential amenities such as healthcare and transportation, retirement communities depend on external assistance. Absence of communication with the ‘outer world’ creates loneliness among the elderly, distancing them from younger generations, who miss opportunities to absorb wisdom from their seniors. Decolonising a segregated approach to urban planning, High Homes proposes an innovative strategy for diversifying urban fabric.

Reviving the High Street

Following the post-pandemic crisis and subsequent shift in shopping culture, many department stores closed leaving High Streets vulnerable to decay and neglect. Taking this opportunity, our strategy for High Homes will adapt disused department stores into Lifetime accommodation. This will revive the High Street as a lively artery of neighbourhoods and bright patchwork of diverse communities. Our goal is to demonstrate how this approach can be adapted and implemented for different neighbourhoods on a national/ international scale.

We have chosen Bedford – a typical small unprivileged town struggling to maintain its liveability – as a case study. Endeavouring a tranquil pace of life, Bedford lacks local attractions and opportunities for social interaction to keep a strong sense of community and maintain economic viability. It has been described by local younger and middle-aged residents as an unliveable town that fails to provide inspiration or comfort for its inhabitants. To cease these alarming inclinations, High Homes adapts a discontinued Debenhams building into an interactive living cluster for older people. Located in the heart of the town, residents have easy access to Bedford hospital five minutes away, central mental health and physiotherapy clinics, wellbeing centres and the local police station.

Debenhams Bedford

Shared outdoor space 

Aiming to retain the historic 1930s building (pictured above), which functioned as E. P. Rose & Son’s department store until Debenhams bought it in the late 1960s, we propose to demolish back yard services blocks constructed in 1980s and arrange a large garden instead. This tranquil space will give residents pleasant internal views of the greenery where they can interact with nature while improving the ecological credentials of the town.

Garden View Beyond Isolation Competition

The garden, visualised above, will comprise an eco-pond, planting and walkways; mobile library; pavilions serving refreshments, senior outdoor sports equipment and comfort facilities such as deckchairs and blankets. It will also host outdoor activities and seasonal events. To provide a secure environment, the garden will only be accessible to High Homes residents during operational hours, with designated access for the local community and visitors for special events.

Enhancing the sense of being needed and valued

Treating design as a methodology for creating inclusive and compassionate communities, High Homes utilises an unconventional architectural programme which considers both senior residents and Bedford locals. Whilst offering 33 single residential units across three storeys and 24-hour services for the seniors, High Homes also accommodates recreational, educational, cultural and retail facilities, which will be available to both to the High Homes residents and town locals. This inclusive and diverse range of uses together with the central location will promote intergenerational interaction to dissolve isolation and enhance wellbeing.

Comfort, accessibility, and wayfinding

Convinced that a comfortable living environment fosters the sense of belonging, High Homes adheres to Third Age design recommendations. To provide an interactive accommodation cluster and give residents quick access to external specialists, we have located 24h services, administration and spaces for doctors, physicians, and workshop leads etc., on the ground floor. The diagram below shows the range of uses per floor.

Beyond Isolation Activities Per Floor

Residential units are located on the upper three floors, accessed via lifts and stairs. To ensure easy wayfinding, each unit within High Homes deploys colour coding (pictured below). Elevations facing the back garden, will have balconies giving tranquil views over the greenery. For the keen gardeners, High Homes will have rooftop allotments where residents can grow fruits and vegetables.

Beyond Isolation Colou

To accommodate residents’ mobility requirements and provide a peaceful environment, the scheme utilises suspended facades along the street front. Spacing between existing and suspended walls will be used as terraces with sitting areas and planters, giving seniors the ability to observe the lively High Street while enjoying a hot beverage.

Beyond Isolation Suspended Facades Along The Street Front

A socially connected community

Aspiring to integrate seniors into the vibrant life of the town and reconnect the locals with the elderly, High Homes designates the ground floor to mixed-use spaces open to all daily. The Project Space will be used as arts and crafts studios for the residents and will host seasonal residencies for the local artists, workshops, and an exhibition space. It will also be the platform for developing the yearly Summer Sculpture Park at High Homes Garden. The Café will be the meeting point for seniors, their friends and families and the local community. The Educational centre and the library will offer lectures and workshops on various subjects, after-school tutoring, and care programmes for the local children with the residents as tutors.

Self-sustaining social hub

While High Homes urban design and architectural programme resolves issues of physical disconnection and social isolation of the senior generation, it also ensures a sustainable building refurbishment and operation without compromising comfort and quality. Prioritising energy efficiency, our Lifetime Accommodation minimises environmental impact, enhances neighbourhood ecology, and reduces long-term operational costs.

Reuse is inherently sustainable

Sustainability lies at the heart of High Homes, as the scheme will adapt existing buildings rather than demolishing them. Reuse maximises retention of existing materials, reduces waste, and preserves the historic character and layers of the area. Since our strategy aims to demolish only a couple of services blocks at the back of the site and keep the main building, the overall carbon footprint of the construction works will be minimal.

Healthy green spaces

A new park with an eco-pond; green roofs and allotments; terraces with plants; and double skinned green façades increases the amount of vegetation in dense an urban environment. Consequently, this design approach reduces CO2 emissions and improves air quality.

Beyond Isolation Sun Path

Renewable energy

Solar panels incorporated into the allotment’s roof will reduce energy consumption of the building while reducing long-term operational costs. These panels are arranged in a checkerboard pattern, with glazing providing a greenhouse roof to allotments.

Beyond Isolation Solar Panels to Allotment Roof

The double skinned façade system along the street and glazing to the garden-facing elevations will assist in regulating natural ventilation and light which will also reduce maintenance costs.

Generating income for community benefit

Our High Homes concept is a self-sustaining social hub that will deliver benefits to the wider community. Price rates at cafes, and ticket sales to lectures, talks and screenings at the library and learning centre, will be set at affordable levels, so that profits can be donated to charity. Similarly, an affordable fee will be applied to after school caring facilities which will be run in these spaces. Additional earnings can be gained during special programmes at the High Homes gardens - during crafts fairs or as a courtesy entrance fee to the Summer Sculpture Park.

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